Though it isn't necessary to have pristine, studio quality audio to run a successful podcast series, it's never going to do you any harm to have a show that sounds professional and easy on the ear.
Without a doubt, the most important factor of any podcast is the content itself. I'm going to assume that you're on the right track with that side of things however, so we can focus entirely on sound quality.
There are a few things to consider and a lot of factors at play when it comes to recording and mixing good audio, so let's take a look.
What Is ‘Good' Audio?
Some might say this is subjective, but I'd argue that there are a number of factors that determine if audio is of a professional broadcast quality.
- Each speaker is always ‘on mic' and completely audible when talking.
- Each microphone is picking up an accurate vocal recording that doesn't sound tinny or muffled.
- Audio is free from distortion (crackling, clipping, interference, handling or wind noise)
- Audio has a low level of ‘noisefloor', so any underlying hiss or background noise isn't intruding on the speech.
- Volume levels are consistent throughout. Even with multiple speakers.
- Vocals are free from excessive echo or reverb (unless deliberate, in a field/location recording environment)
Source Material – Enhance or Repair?
You've probably heard the term “you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear” before. This certainly applies to your audio.
If you record clean source material then you already have good sound quality, but you can use a few tricks in post-production to enhance that quality.
If you record source material with certain issues, then your post-production task is more a case of making it sound presentable than making it sound excellent.
Keep that in mind when you're setting up to record. Listen back to your initial test recordings and ask yourself if this is going to be a repair job. If so, you need to look at sorting out any issues at the source.
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What Determines My Recording Quality?
We can narrow this down to three things.
- Your equipment. From your microphone and mixer to laptop and cables. Everything that makes up your recording setup will have a bearing on your sound quality.
- Your environment. Not just the room around you, but the building around that room, and the street around that building. Even the sky overhead. How much noise filters through into your recording area?
- YOU. Mic technique is often overshadowed by the other two, but it's still very important. Some simple changes to how you record can make a big difference. For example, rather than hold your mic, use a stand or a boom arm. Keep an appropriate distance between your mouth and the mic head too – the distance between the tip of your pinkie and the tip of your thumb is a good starting point. And always use a pop shield!
Managing Your Recording Session
If you're running a solo show then you only need to worry about your own environment, equipment, and technique. In terms of recording equipment we have a full equipment guide to a lot of the podcasting gear we've used over the years. Condition-wise, you might want to check out our article on creating a good recording environment too.
If you're working with co-hosts and interviewees on-location then you still have a lot of control. Choose your environments wisely, prep your guests, and don't be afraid to halt a recording if you need to correct something. Editing out a short pause is a lot better than trying to fix poorly recorded audio in post-production.
Here's where you're at the mercy of the podcasting Gods. From dodgy headsets to laggy internet connections, recording any type of call can end up sounding a bit rubbish if things don't go to plan.
In the past few years this has gotten a lot better. Internet connections and speeds are always improving, as is Skype itself, and you don't need to break the bank to get a decent sounding USB microphone either (my favourite is the Samson Q2U).
You can avoid a lot of stress by prepping your interviewee ahead of time. Ask them about their equipment and environment in advance of the call. Then, if necessary, you can try to sort out any mic technique issues before you start the actual recording.
The ‘Double Ender'
Sounds a bit dodgy, but if you're able to record a call in this way then you'll never look back.
A Double Ender is where each person on a call records their own audio independently of the Skype session.
You can record your own audio straight into your DAW (your editing software, DAW stands for Digital Audio Workstation) but it's best to avoid putting too much strain on your computer which might affect the call itself.
A much better option, if each caller has the luxury of doing so, is to record their own audio into a digital recorder, like a Zoom.
This means the audio is totally unaffected by bad signals and Skype lagging. Once the call is over, each person sends their audio to whoever is mixing the episode, and they'll sync it all together.
When doing a Double Ender, especially with more than one caller, be sure to do 3 loud claps before you start the show. That way it'll be much easier to sync up in post-production.
So what are some of the things you can do to make good source material even better once you start editing your episode?
These processes can be found in most, if not all pieces of recording/editing software. One of the most popular in podcasting is Audacity, because it's free.
Regardless of what programme you're using, the Effects menu will be a good place to start when looking for the following.
Here's some sample audio I've recorded so you can hear each change. Stick a pair of headphones on when listening to these.
So you'll almost always have at least some level of ‘noise' under a recording. It'll be one of two types of noise.
- Environmental noise – depending on where you record this could be anything from traffic to people talking in the background.
- Equipment noise – when recording gear is plugged in and working there are a combination of electrical signals at work to power everything. These can be picked up in your audio as a low hiss or buzz. This is commonly referred to as ‘noisefloor' or ‘roomtone'.
Assuming you've done all you can to record the cleanest source material possible, it's likely you'll still have a level of hiss under your vocals that becomes more obvious when you boost the volume a bit.
You can eliminate this by using the Noise Reduction process. In most DAWs this works by highlighting a section of ‘silence' in your recording, which then allows the software to identify the noise that it wants to remove.
It's good practice to record 5-10 seconds of silence/roomtone at the very start of your audio. You can then use this as your noise reduction sample in the editing process.
EQ or Equalisation is a versatile process that gives you complete control over the sound of your audio.
Your recording is basically layer upon layer of different sound frequencies. EQ lets you reduce or remove certain frequencies, whilst boosting others, until you arrive at a sound that you're happy with.
Most EQ controls look like a radio station mixing desk, with individual faders for each frequency band. On the far left you have the low frequencies, and on the far right you have the high frequencies.
If your recording has some mic handling, popping, or wind distortion, then you can improve this by fading down the frequencies under 80Hz.
If you're looking to enhance, rather than repair your vocals, you can apply a gentle boost between 200Hz-600Hz. Just remember to use your ears, rather than your eyes, when applying EQ.
It's all about experimentation so try different things, practice, and find out what works best for your own voice.
Applying ‘compression’ to an audio file means that your DAW is going to bring the loudest parts and the quietest parts of your audio closer together. This can help you to achieve a much more consistent volume level throughout your episode.
Inside your compressor's settings you can set a Threshold to determine how loud the audio has to get before the compressor starts working. If you set the threshold to the quietest parts of your waveform, anything louder than the quietest parts will be compressed.
You'll also have a Noisefloor setting that you can adjust to make sure silence isn’t amplified during pauses in speech.
Ratio will determine the level of compression, so at 2.1 it might be pretty mild, then you can bump it up to 3.1, then 4.1, and at 5.1 you're starting to compress your audio quite heavily. It all depends on your source material though, so go with what sounds right to you.
Finally, Attack and Delay settings basically just the reaction speeds of the compressor, so when there is changes in the volume of your source file you can increase these to make it start and stop working quicker.
What if you’ve never used editing software before? Maybe you’re concerned that you don’t have the budget to outsource your production, but also don’t have the time to learn it all.
If that’s the case, you might want to check out our “podcast making” tool Alitu, which practically builds your episode for you.
Alitu is really simple to use, and will take care of the processing, editing, and publishing of your podcast, without the need for any actual editing software.
So whether you’re a complete beginner, or an experienced podcaster looking to drastically cut down on your production time, Alitu could be the answer you’re looking for!
If you're relatively new to recording and editing audio then this might seem a little complicated and overwhelming to begin with. Like anything else though, you'll hone your skills through experimentation and practice.
If you're looking to fast-track your production skills, we've created a video course teaching you all you need to know about recording and editing with Audacity. That covers everything mentioned in this article, along with lots of other tips and techniques to streamline your process.
Or perhaps you'd rather let someone take care of your production for you, in which case, we can do that too!
I'd be interested to hear of your own experiences in trying to improve your audio quality. Did you alter your environment, upgrade your equipment, or have you got a process that really brings out the best in your vocals in post-production? Let me know in the comments section below.