One of the most important contributors to the success of your podcast is the sound quality. A distracting echo, an overpowering wind whooshing across the microphone, electrical noise, overbearing background noise – all of these things can act as a distraction or worse, a source of frustration for your audience. The cleaner and more consistent, the audio of your podcast is, the more effectively its message will come across to your audience.
In this article, I share some valuable advice that I’ve learned as an experienced professional audio engineer. Advice on how you can make your podcast episodes sound significantly better, even with a tiny budget. Here are some tips and factors to consider before hitting the record button.
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1. Good Editing Can’t Fix Everything
I’ve been paid to edit tons of podcasts and you’d be surprised at how many companies with sky-high budgets have made tons of mistakes when recording their audio – mistakes that I couldn’t fix, even with my 6 years of expertise and the most reputable audio restoration software on the market.
The phrase “we’ll fix it in post” rarely applies when it comes to the recording of your podcast. Much like baking a cake, it’s really difficult to remove the eggs from an already completed confection. In the same light, there’s only so much that can be done to fix an already degraded or damaged audio signal. The important act of listening back after a soundcheck will help you a ton in identifying these problems before it’s too late.
2. Soundcheck Before The Interview
Why is it important?
The importance of a sound check cannot be emphasized enough. Recording a few short seconds of conversation between you and your guest, even a few simple “one-two-one-two’s” (A good ol’ tried and true approach) and a quick listen back will always be an incredibly valuable exercise.
The act of a quick soundcheck will save you a ton of time, stress and work down the road specifically while editing and mixing your episode. If you’re a host, this also gives you an opportunity to take a few minutes to coach your guest on how to use a microphone correctly.
What should you be listening for?
While listening back, you will be more aware of potential problems you can and should avoid. You might find that the environment you’re recording in is too busy, too loud and you’ll need to reconsider where you plan the recording location. There might be an electrical hum in your signal produced that you were unaware of made by a partially broken cable which you can now quickly & easily swop out for a back up one – which you should always have on hand. You might find that you have the gain/input on your preamp/sound card too high resulting in distortion – Red Lights blinking on your preamp is a bad thing!
All of this before even hitting record on your interview and committing to the audio and its problems.
I’ve edited podcasts where the host didn’t realize his mic was facing the wrong way. I’ve edited podcasts where the host forgot to turn the guest’s mic on. I’ve edited podcasts where the electrical hum from a broken cable was louder than the host & guest and there was little to nothing I could do to fix it – at least not without damaging the most important part of the podcast – the voice.
Situations like these result in unnecessary stress & work for everyone involved and may result in a disappointed podcaster, guest and ultimately audience.
3. The Recording Environment
Almost nothing affects the quality of your sound more than the environment you’re recording in. You can have the best mics, best preamps, most interesting informative content, but record in the wrong environment and there is very little that can be done to remedy it.
What is a good recording environment?
Try to record in the quietest environment possible. If you have the available budget and time, a somewhat acoustically treated room would be best. This can be anything from booking time in the booth of a professional recording studio to draping curtains in a spare bedroom.
When you’re starting out, you might not have the available budget to spend on a professionally treated space or the very nature of the subject matter of your podcast might mean that you need to meet your guests when & where they are available. If this is the case, find a place where reverb or “echo” is at a minimum; It’s easy to add reverb post-recording (if it’s at all necessary) but it is incredibly difficult (if not near impossible) to remove reverb/echo after the fact without degrading the quality of the voices you’ve recorded.
If you’re recording from a space at home, again, try to find the quietest area available. Try to find a quiet car, a quiet closed off boardroom or a small office space; a controlled environment with as few background distractions as possible.
How to avoid a bad recording environment
Be sure to avoid tiled areas such as kitchens and bathrooms. Tiles will result in reflections and “echo’s” which should be avoided as much as possible. A quiet room with curtains and, budget allowing, some foam applied to the walls would be best. If you have a window nearby, be sure to keep it closed while recording to avoid ambient noise from the outside world and/or wind noise. Also be sure to face the backside of your microphone towards the window as much as possible to avoid reflections from the window bouncing back into your microphone.
If you have an air conditioner and/or a fan nearby, be sure to double check (during your soundcheck) that little to no noise is being produced by them. Air conditioners and fan noise often presents itself in your recorded signal as a constant low, and often annoying, hum. Its always better to keep such devices off while recording, however, if you’re in a room that is uncomfortably hot without it, do your best to keep fan speeds to a minimum to reduce the amount of noise made.
Bathrooms, (I’ve had this happen far too many times) busy restaurants or bustling public spaces and windy outdoor areas should be avoided at all costs. If you can hear that group of teenagers yelling in the background, the rustling of leaves above your head, the hooters, squealing brakes and engine sounds of the traffic behind you, then your microphone most definitely can too.
It’s also important to note that a lot of these problems can be avoided with a quick trusty soundcheck so that you’re armed with the knowledge of what to do next!
4. Microphone Technique
Part of getting the best audio possible is reliant on proper mic technique, this includes how well you explain and communicate what correct mic technique is to your guests. A soundcheck is a perfect time to explain to your guest how best to use his/her microphone.
If you’re interviewing someone in person, it’s best to have a microphone available for yourself and one extra mic per guest. 1 host & 2 guests = 3 microphones.
Use a mic stand
It is best to keep your microphones on their own individual microphone stands – either a boom stand or a tabletop stand. Your guest might not be as familiar with the correct microphone technique as you are, so hand-holding a microphone may result in unideal recordings. If your guest holds the microphone too close to his/her mouth, you might get hard plosives ( Pops and booms especially on “B” and P” sounds) and sharp sibilance (those “T”, “Shhh” and “Sss” sounds.) Should your guest hold the mic too far away from his/her mouth, this will result in the signal sounding thin, unfocused, and may even give unwanted background noise an opportunity to sneak in.
Find a sturdy surface to place your mic stands on. A flimsy, unsteady surface that easily moves and bangs will result in booms and pops in your microphones which will be distracting for your audience.
The ideal distance from the mic
Mic technique differs slightly, depending on which microphone is used (which we will touch on soon in a future blog post) but the general best practice is that you and your guests speak a 4-finger distance from the microphone and/or its pop filter. Try as best you can to not move your head left or right or move backward while talking.
Use a pop filter
I’d recommend purchasing a “pop filter” for each microphone, this will help keep hard plosives (especially on “B” and P” sounds) and sharp sibilance (those “T”, “Shhh” and “Sss” sounds) more under control. There are a few different types but the most common would be a nylon mesh pop filter (which will work best for condenser style microphones) and a foam windscreen (which will work best for dynamic cardioid microphones such as the Shure SM58 or SM7B – both very common for podcasting.)
The best type of microphone for podcasts
I would recommend purchasing & using cardioid or hyper-cardioid microphones. This is the most common type of microphone used for live sound settings. Why? Because unless the sound source (in this case, the voice) is directly in front of the microphone it rejects a large majority of the sound behind and to the sides of it. This results in a clearer more focused recording of your voice.
A tip: Have the back of each cardioid microphone facing the back of the other; this will greatly decrease the chances of each participant being heard in the other’s microphone.
How to use your audio interface correctly
Setting the correct input gain for your microphone on your interface/preamp/sound card is important.
If the sound entering your microphone is water, then the preamp is the tap. This is where you decide how much audio travels from your mic into your computer. Set it too high, (Beware of Red Lights on your preamp!) and you’ll get distortion as well as picking up a greater amount of background noise. Set it too low, and you’ll get noise in your signal (this is an inherent factor with electrical equipment) as well as the voices sounding thin and unfocused.
Spend some time playing around with your preamp, determining where it sounds best with the least amount of distortion & noise. The best practice is to use the meters on your preamp or the meters in your computer to determine what the loudest portion of your podcast is – this could be something such as a hearty laugh, ensure that the louder portion of your voice is hitting at -6 DB’s on the meter and never passes 0 DB or kicks in the red clip light.
5. First, Learn The Rules, Then How To Break Them
It’s important to note that, while we all want to strive for our podcasts to be the best that they can be, both in content and in audio quality; sometimes its the small mistakes, the small mishaps that add to the human quality of your podcast.
This is something your listeners will either find endearing and relatable or in some cases they may find this unprofessional and distracting. It’s all about knowing your audience and adjusting your approach accordingly.
A podcast centered around business & finance catering to a busy schedule, high-pressure audience may not appreciate time-consuming human elements the same way the audience of a podcast appealing to people with a passion for food or music would.
Sometimes, recording your guests at a convention, their place of work or a similar location which may be less than ideal could add to the background context for where you and your guests are, what they do and how they do it. A quick soundcheck will be your guide here, and be sure to do your best to ensure that the ratio between the voice and the background sound leans far more in favour of the voice. In time and as you record more you record the more you will learn the difference.
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