Maybe you’re thinking of starting a podcast. Or maybe you already have one. Either way, you have probably asked yourself: how can I make my podcast sound better?
When it comes to recording quality audio for podcasts, the answers can be confusing while the options are just as overwhelming.
To help you get some simple and straightforward answers, our writer, Cassidy Butler, spoke with Ish Balderas Wong, Voxtopica’s chief sound engineer.
Ish is a highly experienced audio engineer who has worked in studios around the world producing music and podcasts. He earned his degree in Electronic Production and Sound Design from Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Ish is going to tell you what steps you can take to get professional-sounding audio. Whether you’re recording in a studio, your office, or your living room (while you monitor your kid’s virtual learning), you can record a great sounding podcast.
So grab some coffee and a notepad, and settle in to learn how to make a great sounding show.
CB: What are the most important factors to recording quality, usable audio?
IBW: There are three things to consider. We call them “the 3 E’s”: Environment, Equipment, and Engineering. If you do the right things in each of these your podcast can sound really good.
CB: Let’s start with environment. What does that mean for podcasting?
IBW: The space where you record is really important to how you’ll sound. In an ideal world, everyone would record in a studio specifically designed to produce amazing sound.
But studios aren’t possible for everyone, especially during the pandemic. An alternative, especially for home recordings, would be recording in a closet — and really, a closet full of clothes.
CB: A closet full of clothes? Explain.
IBW: It’s the way sound works. Have you ever been in a completely empty room where everything you say sounds like it echos? That’s because sound travels in straight lines. If you record a podcast in an empty room, the sound of your voice bounces off the walls over and over, creating that echo. Well, your mic will pick up that echo, too. That’s called “reverb”.
That effect doesn’t happen if the walls are covered in something that absorbs sound so that most of it doesn’t bounce off.
You can buy foam panels to put on your walls, or just hang tapestries, put curtains over windows, and lay rugs on the floor. Or, as I said before, record in a closet full of clothes. All that hanging fabric does a great job of absorbing sound.
CB: What else do podcasters need to know about their environment?
IBW: Even when you have good sound absorption, some sound will still bounce off of every surface. So your voice also needs to be dispersed. As sound travels through air, it loses energy — basically, it gets quieter. You want any sound that does bounce to lose as much energy, meaning get as quiet as possible, before it gets to your mic. The best way to do that is to have lots of surfaces for the sound to bounce off.
That’s why studios have walls covered with egg carton-like foam, to absorb and disperse sound in lots of directions.
You can get that effect by having something behind your mic like a bookshelf. When sound hits the shelves, the books of different sizes will send the sound in different directions.
CB: So now we have our ideal environment set up. The next “E” is equipment. What can you tell us about that?
IBW: You will only ever sound as good as your worst piece of equipment. If you have a perfect environment but a bad microphone, your audio can’t sound better than the microphone allows. That’s why it’s worth investing in quality equipment.
But environment and equipment go hand-in-hand. The best microphone in the world can’t eliminate reverb, so a microphone can only make you sound as good as your environment.
CB: What kinds of microphones are best for podcasters?
IBW: The first thing is that there are two basic kinds of podcast mics. There are condenser microphones and dynamic microphones.
Condenser mics are very sensitive. They pick up a lot of sound and capture everything, including any background noise. A condenser mic gives a rich, full sound, but they aren’t the best options if you’re recording at home. Even if your home or office seems quiet, there’s always some kind of humming or creaking in the building. Because of this, condenser mics must be used in the right kind of setting, usually an acoustically-treated studio.
The other kinds are dynamic microphones. These mics pick up less sound and mostly from whatever is right in front of it. They are the mics singers in bands use because they don’t pick up the rest of the band. This is the best option for home or office recording but, like singers in bands, you need to keep the mic close to your mouth to get the best sound. A dynamic mic more than six inches from your mouth is not going to give you very good sound quality.
CB: Why is it important to place the microphone here?
IBW: This is where “gain” comes in. Gain is how sensitive your microphone is to sound. The higher the gain, the more sensitive it is. If the gain is too high, the mic picks up sounds you don’t want recorded and can make your voice sound distorted. If the gain is too low, it won’t pick up your voice. If the microphone is six inches from your face and you appropriately adjust the gain, you won’t have to whisper or yell for the mic to pick you up with good quality.
CB: A lot of people are concerned about USB vs. XLR when it comes to purchasing a microphone. What’s your breakdown?
IBW: USB microphones record digitally. They connect directly to your computer and send audio right in. XLR mics record in analog and require more audio equipment, but they record incredibly detailed audio. That being said, even though USB records less detail, you can still get great audio for podcasts with a USB microphone without having to purchase extra equipment.
CB: This brings us to the final “E” which is engineering. What’s the first thing podcasters need to know about it?
IBW: You can have the right equipment and perfect environment, but if you use a bad recording service or record on the wrong file format, your audio will lose a lot of quality. The good thing is that these are all preventable mistakes.
CB: Especially with more people recording their podcasts remotely, what services should people use to record conversations?
IBW: First, don’t record on Zoom or Google Meet. These programs can suppress or distort your audio while recording. I recommend using a local recording service like Squadcast or Zencastr. The benefit to using local recording services is that your audio doesn’t have to travel through the internet. Every guest is recorded on a separate track and that track’s file is recorded locally on your computer. So even if you or your guest has spotty internet or the recording gets glitched, the audio files will still be clean.
I’ll add that it’s absolutely critical for all hosts and guests to wear headphones while recording to monitor the detail of sound. If you don’t wear headphones, all you hear is the sound in the room, not the sound being recorded. When you wear headphones, you hear what’s being recorded, so you’ll know if your squeaky chair is being recorded or, worse, if someone’s mic isn’t working.
CB: How about files?
IBW: You want to work on WAV files during the whole production process. WAV is a bigger, high resolution file. MP3 is a smaller file. If you’re giving files to an engineer, always give them WAV files. MP3 files can compress the more they’re edited, resulting in a smaller file with lower quality detail.
CB: Final parting wisdom for our subject matter expert podcasters?
IBW: Take the time to get your audio right before recording. Raw recording is the biggest factor of how good your podcast will sound. You can’t expect miracles from your sound engineer if the raw files are low quality recordings. The better quality the raw audio is, the better your podcast will sound. That’s it for subject matter experts!
If you want to learn more step-by-step approaches to recording high quality audio, stay in touch to learn about our future webinar on How To Make Your Podcast Sound Better.