September 29, 2020

How to Make your Podcast Not Sound Like Shit

If I had a dollar for every time one of my friends or colleagues went out and bought the wrong piece of audio equipment because they didn’t fucking ask me first, I would have a few dollars

I have been working with recording & digital audio for about sixteen years. I graduated from Langara College’s music production programme in Vancouver in 2010, and have taken up podcasting as a hobby and part time gig.

Fast forward to 2020: Podcasting is, all of a sudden, a very popular medium. It is attractive in that almost anyone can do it! This is great. But I see a lot of folks – new to the complicated, intimidating and seductively expensive world of pro audio – asking the same questions over and over.

“What mic do I get?”

“What software do I use?”

“Why does my audio sound so shitty?”

And so on.

In this blog post, I will attempt to answer these questions for all you fledgling podcasters and audio producers alike in order to help de-mystify the most common issues experienced by those starting out in this field.

If you already have a podcast set up and just want some tips on post-production, save yourself some time and skip ahead a few sections.

TL;DR: Use compression. I repeat, with added emphasis: Use compression.

Choosing your Microphone

The first piece of equipment that you are going to need is – obviously – a microphone. Unless you plan on podcasting through smoke signals, carrier pigeons, or a laptop mic, this will be your first investment.

Now, of course, it’s entirely possible to do a podcast using your laptop or phone microphone, but if you want your show to sound actually-good then you will need to make some (modest) investments in some hardware. One of the most common complaints about podcasts is their absolutely horrible audio quality, and if you want to attract listeners and have an actually-good sounding show, then you will need to invest in something.

Dynamic Mics vs. Condenser Mics

There are two main types of microphones: Dynamic and condenser. This is an example of a dynamic mic, a Shure SM-58:

And this is a condenser mic, the very same type we use on our show, the Audio Technica AT-2020:

Both types of microphones have pros and cons, and I will do my best to outline the major points for each. Depending on your recording environment, budget, and time that you want to spend on your show, this is going to be an important choice.

Dynamic Mics

Dynamic mics are intended for both live performance and studio recording. They are not as sensitive as condenser mics, but are more sturdy. The sound that they pick up is very directional, so when you are listening to a podcast and all of a sudden the voice of the host or guest is really really quiet for a couple of seconds, it’s because they moved the mic away from their face for a brief moment before somebody else in the room reminded them to move it back.

PROS:

  • Very low microphone bleed / background noise
  • Usually slightly more affordable
  • Much easier to have multiple microphones in the same room
  • Handheld, no stand required
  • Sturdy, almost indestructible

CONS:

  • Sound quality is inferior to condensers
  • Amplitude (volume) will decrease exponentially with every inch you move it away from your face

Condenser Mics

Condenser mics are intended for high-quality studio recording. It’s what radio hosts usually use, and the type of microphone used to capture the pristine sound of acoustic guitars and vocalists. They are more finicky to work with, but if your goal is maximum audio quality and fidelity, there is no other option. Keep in mind that these microphones require what is called phamtom power +48v so whatever audio interface or mixing board you choose is going to need that (it’s a standard feature don’t worry).

PROS:

  • Unmatched, pristine audio quality
  • Professional sound
  • No need to worry about whether or not the mic is 2 inches versus 3 inches from your face

CONS:

  • High levels of microphone bleed (if you have multiple mics in the same room) and background noise (fans, air conditioning, computers etc)
  • Requires a stand, usually a boom stand
  • Having multiple mics in the same room requires more editing due to said mic bleed

Microphones in Conclusion

If you’re a solo podcaster, go with a single USB condenser mic. If you have limited resources and/or multiple hosts in the same room and don’t want to worry too much about audio issues then go with a dynamic mic set unless you’re prepared to spend a lot of time in editing / post-production. If you want supreme energy, invest in some condenser microphones and boom stands. Also, make sure you buy a VOCAL mic, not an INSTRUMENT mic, because your face is not a guitar.

Audio Interface

I swear to fucking god, if I hear one more person ask “What mixing board should I get?” then I will light myself on fire. Mixing boards have not been used in most home recording studios for like 15 years, and even a lot of high end recording studios don’t even use them any more. Modern (and, by extension, home) studios usually use what is called an external audio interface.

Example A:

The Steinberg UR44 USB powered audio interface

If you only need one microphone for your podcast, then you do not need one of these and can just pick yourself up a USB mic instead.

Example B:

Essentially the audio interface acts as your computer’s sound card and allows you to directly record the (analog) signal of your voice / microphone directly onto your (digital) hard drive. Each analog XLR (mic) input of the interface has within it an A/D converter (analog to digital) which converts your silky smooth voice into a lovely and pristine .WAV file within your digital audio workstation.

The main difference between an audio interface and a mixing board is that the latter typically will send one bulk audio signal as its output into your computer (even if it’s a USB mixer) no matter how many different audio signals you have.

So – imagine if you will – you are recording a podcast with 5 people in the room, and one of them coughs. If your mixing board isn’t splitting those five microphone signals into five different .WAV files (they usually don’t), then there’s nothing you can do about that cough, you’re boned, and it stays in the final edit.

The audio interface, on the other hand, will allow you to record each separate microphone as its own, separate .WAV file allowing you to delete unnecessary background noise, coughs, farts, burps and more.

When choosing an audio interface, make sure that the device that you choose has enough XLR audio inputs for the number of co-hosts / microphones that you need to use. If you have four co-hosts in the same room, you’ll need four inputs.

If your co-hosts are in different locations and recording on their own computers or from Skype or Zoom or whatever, then you’ll only need enough equipment for yourself.

Digital Audio Workstation

This brings up the question, where does the magic happen? The answer is the Digital Audio Workstation (DAW).

The DAW is where you actually record your audio into, and do all of your editing and post-production later on.

Example C:


Ben edits an episode of Out of Left Field using Cubase 10 (2019, colourised)

Ranging from free to thousands of dollars, a sturdy DAW is what you need to make everything come together and make your show come to life.

If you have virtually no resources then you will be stuck with using a program called Audacity. I tip my hat to those developers at Audacity who work to provide a free DAW for anybody to use. However, if you are able to, I would recommend using just about anything else. The main reason is the lack of real time audio processing when doing post-production. I would describe what that means here, except that I would go on for five pages in a profanity laden diatribe for no real reason.

Most companies that make audio software and DAW’s have (much) more affordable versions of their software, and there are some other free and not-super-expensive programs available as well. For example:

Reaper (free)
Presonus Studio One (basic version is free)
Cubase ($150 for basic version)
Ardour (by donation, open source)

There are probably some podcasting-specific DAW-esque programs designed for this, but I’m kind of averse to out-of-the-box solutions and like to be able to do proper audio editing and post-production and honestly just never really looked into them.

Recording & Space

You are going to want to cut down on as much background noise as you possibly can, particularly if you decide to use a condenser microphone. Turn off all fans, close all windows, sedate all roommates and/or children in the vicinity.

The distance between your face (the sound source) and the microphone is important. The closer that your face is to the microphone the more “full” and “in your face” sound that you are going to get. The further that the sound source (your voice) is away from the microphone, the bass frequencies will reduce exponentially. This can be explained by the microphone proximity effect. It is how radio DJ’s get their “in your face” sound, in conjunction with which is – bar none – the most important aspect in audio post-production: compression. But we’ll get into that shortly.

For recording vocals, it’s usually recommended that the “hang 10” rule apply:


With this distance between your microphone and your face. This is not correct for podcasting

But if you are recording a podcast or radio show and want a more compelling, “in your face” type sound I’ve found that 3-6 inches works best.

Post Production

Now let’s get to the fun stuff. This is where the magic happens!

Compression

The single most important tool in your arsenal in making your podcast sound good is compression. There are a tonne of YouTube videos that go into it in detail so I will try to keep things brief here.

Essentially, the compressor will make the loud parts quieter and the quiet parts louder. It “evens out” the amplitude of the audio signal. Humans, when speaking, don’t speak at the same amplitude level all the time. And, when recording, will tend to move around a little bit, and your head isn’t going to be in the same place for a whole podcast episode. This helps even all of that out, as well as give a more punchy, even, listenable sound for your podcast. When you’re recording, be aware of how far your face is away from your microphone whenever you’re speaking.

There aren’t any magic numbers for how to configure your compressor settings, but here’s how we have them set at Out of Left Field:

Ratio: 1/4
Attack: 1 ms
Hold: 1 ms
Release: 50 ms
Makeup Gain: ON!
Threshold: -32 db

For your podcast, when setting your compressor threshold, the objective is to not compress too much or too little, but just right. Try to aim for about -6 to -8 decibels of peak amplitude reduction.

Equalization

EQ is not crucial when podcasting but it’s good to be aware of. If you’ve used a car stereo, you’re familiar with the general idea: bass, mid and treble:

There are a couple of important points for using EQ while podcasting:

  • It’s good practice to cut out frequencies under 150 HZ. This is well below the frequencies of the human voice, and will cut out any idling vehicles outside your house or other unwanted sounds that will make their way into your recording
  • If you interview someone with a bad microphone or connection, you can boost the mid to higher frequencies to give it a little more clarity and definition

Editing and Final Touches

To finish off the final product, I always want to ensure that I remove as much background noise as possible.

If you have multiple audio tracks (ie: one track per podcaster) if you’ve got the time, delete all the space where they’re not saying anything. Remember, background hum/noise compounds the more audio signals that you have together.

As a final touch, I also like to add a mastering limiter / compressor to the master track output.

Audio Restoration

Sometimes you get an interview that sounds like shit. Maybe their microphone was horrible, or they had a bad internet connection, or there was some weird background noise that was beyond their control. Sometimes there is nothing that you can do about it, but sometimes there is!

The first thing you want to do is to use EQ to reduce shitty frequencies by reducing their amplitude. This can be used if there’s an obvious hum, buzz, or other bullshit that you can obviously hear in the background.

Other than that, proper audio restoration usually requires the use of purpose-built VST plugins (these are like software plugins that you can use in your DAW). Personally I use Accusonus plugins and they’ve been ok so far, but there are a lot of tools available

If you’re part of the Harbinger Media Network, hit me up on Slack and I’ll try to repair your audio.

Conclusions

I hope this brief guide has helped you navigate the complicated world of audio production. If you have any questions don’t hesitate to reach out!

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