Four steps to a better sounding podcast (without spending any money)
Creating a podcast has come within reach for anyone who feels like they have a story to tell. It's relatively simple to get started, record, edit, find music and publish your podcast. But there's still a huge amount of knowledge and skill required to create a great-sounding podcast. It's easy to get lost in the forest of sound recorders, mics, headphones and editing software. But without proper usage, technology does little for you. Let's explore a few concepts that will help you get the most out of your gear without spending any money.
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1. Microphone placement
There's a concept in sound production called the signal-to-noise ratio that will have a huge impact on how 'clean' your recordings sound. The signal is the sound you want to record, which for a podcast is voice. Noise is everything else; other participants' voices leaking into your mic, traffic outside, room ambience or a tactless neighbor mowing their lawn in the middle of your recording session.
In reality, this translates to bringing the mic (almost) as close to your mouth as possible. A good rule of thumb (pun intended) is to use the distance between your thumb and pinky to get an approximation of how close you should be. If you get too close to the mic it can cause sound artifacts that will ruin your recording.
What happens when you bring your signal source, or mouth, closer to the mic is that the signal-to-noise ratio works in favor of the signal. If your mouth is too far away from the mic, you will inevitably have to increase the gain on your sound recorder. This means bringing up the noise as well which will make your recording sound worse, and since your mouth is far away you will sound distant to the listener.
This is true whether you use a professional mic or your phone to record sound. Can't beat physics.
Bring the microphone close to your source (mouth). Not too close. But close. If you hear puffs or other sound artifacts, move slightly further away or shift your position so the air stream from your mouth doesn’t go straight into the microphone.
2. Pick an acoustically favorable recording space
Even if you have perfect mic placement, your sound can still suffer from room acoustics. The most common problems caused by your space are reverberation and phasing issues.
Reverberation is caused by hard, flat surfaces that let the sound bounce around with no resistance. This effect can be something you want for creative purposes. Like the way a concert hall compliments the sound of an orchestra, or how a recording made in an airplane hangar can add long, overlapping echoes.
In smaller spaces, reverberation tends to create a disturbing and unwanted effect in your recordings since the sound is bouncing over such a short distance that the reflections become problematic.
Phasing issues are a sibling to reverberation but cause a different problem in your recording. Depending on the space you're in and how sound bounces around in it, some frequencies in a person's voice can bounce back and cancel out frequencies in the same spectrum. This can cause all sorts of issues that result in either poor audio quality or a lot of frustration in front of your computer while trying to clean it up.
How to fix it
Some simple ways to overcome these issues, without being in a dedicated studio, are:
- Apply the signal-to-noise ratio principle in tip 1 to ensure you’re recording more of the signal (voice) than noise (in this case, the reverberation).
- Test the space(s) you're considering to record in and choose the one with the least reflections. A simple way of testing is to clap your hands and listen to how the sound bounces. For reference, you can compare your bathroom with your bedroom.
- Record in a space that has a lot of materials that can mitigate reflections. Some excellent sound absorbents are carpets, beds, couches, pillows, uneven wall textures and (thick) curtains. Any material that is soft enough to absorb sound waves or that has rough textures that disperse reflections in different directions will make your recording environment better.
- If you still have to use a space that's not ideal, add sound-absorbing materials and elements to your recording space. You can also consider buying acoustic treatment pads, there are cheap alternatives that help your space out quite a bit. It's also an opportunity to make your recording space more cosy. I mean, who doesn't like a mountain of pillows?
- Capture test recordings and make sure it sounds good. Use the same number of mics and talk into each one to get a grasp on how the sound bounces. The more voices you can test with the better, but testing with just your own is still a huge step.
3. Consistent sound levels
I have a few pet peeves when listening to podcasts, and the two most common ones by far are poor sound quality and uneven sound levels.
I bet you've experienced it too; the podcast starts with a short intro. You set your volume accordingly, and then your ears almost explode when a jingle begins at more than double the volume of the intro speech. I keep listening. The sound level between the show host and a person being interviewed is way off.
I find myself struggling to find the middle ground between not having the show host sounding too loud while still being able to clearly hear the interviewee. It annoys the heck out of me as a listener.
Keep your listeners happy
So, here are some guidelines to not annoy the heck out of me (and other listeners).
- When recording, keep the peaks of each mic at approximately -12dB on the meter in your recorder. You can keep -12dB in mind when editing as well. This comes in handy if you're recording to a device that does not allow you to set levels while recording. Instead, you can control them in your editing software.
- To make mastering - the task of finalizing your podcast mix - faster you can also set your other sound sources to about -12dB when editing. This includes music, jingles, sound effects and anything else you throw in there.
- Set background music 10-15dB below your voice level. This means it should peak around -27 to -22dB, depending on the type of music. Trust your ears — can you hear the voice clearly over the music?
- We've now reached a mix that is somewhat even in sound level which ensures you won't annoy your listeners. If you export in this state, your listeners might have to max out their volume on their listening device to get it loud enough. Even though it's not optimal, it's a significant improvement over uneven sound levels.
4. Microphone technique
Closely related to the signal-to-noise ratio, we find mic technique. Once you've ensured that your mic is within a good distance from your mouth and provides a clean signal, you can start improving your mic technique.
Poor mic technique is very obvious to the listener as it creates several problems when recording sound:
- Puffs and pops (called "plosives") in the recording
- Distorted sound when raising your voice or laughing loudly
- Uneven levels as a result of not speaking into the mic
- Unwanted sounds when hitting the table, mic stand or adjusting the position of the mic
Handle the mic like a pro
Luckily, all of these can be avoided by following a few simple principles:
- Wear headphones. Nothing beats hearing the issues created by poor mic technique and fixing them in real-time.
- Keep the air stream from your mouth off-axis from the mic so the air doesn't go straight into the mic. Position yourself or the mic so you that you still get a good signal-to-noise ratio without forcing air into the mic.
- If you're laughing, screaming, coughing or being loud in general, lean away from the mic and/or turn to the side. This makes sure the sound doesn't distort. Distortion is when your equipment gets overloaded and creates a very unflattering sound. No one enjoys distorted voices.
- A common beginner's issue is that they move in and out of the mic's pickup pattern. A pickup pattern defines a mic's optimal angle in correlation to the source (your mouth). When recording a podcast with several people, it's easy to look at the person you're talking to and forget about the mic. This can result in talking off-axis and getting worse sound in your recording. The solution is to see your head as a planet, and your mic as the sun. If you want to look left to talk to another participant in the podcast, lean right so your sound source (mouth) stays in a good position for the mic to pick up clean sound.
- Keep your hands and fiddliness in check. Mics are sensitive and will pick up any click, bump or thud around it. Again, wear headphones to help you realize how loud it sounds in the recording. Consider putting a soft material on your table so you can put down your coffee cup without acting like you're John McClane handling a nuclear device. Floor protectors on your chairs and table is also a great and cheap way to mitigate unwanted sounds when recording.
Welcome to the end!
I hope you leave this article feeling confident that you can achieve good sound without expensive equipment and ideal surroundings. I suffer heavily from GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome). I've found myself spending hours looking up gear and gadgets instead of creating and doing, and it kills my creativity.
With the techniques listed in this article you can record and share a podcast that sounds good enough, and that's what counts. If you're limited on resources, you can record your podcast with your phone's built-in microphone. Just make sure mic placement is good, that you record in an acoustically decent place, get your sound levels right and spend some time learning one of the free sound editors out there. Once your podcast is soaring, you can look to upgrade your equipment.
What matters in the end is the quality of your story and content. Happy creating!
Some excellent resources to learn more:
As I was finishing up this post I was bouncing around on YouTube and other sites to make sure I mentioned everything I wanted to include. I ended up watching this video from Javier Mercedes which covers some of the points in this post. I highly recommend you check it out:
Author: Linus Nygren, Director of Content & Community
Linus has deep knowledge in the broadcast radio, podcasting and filmmaking industries. Before Nomono, he worked as a radio journalist, radio show host, podcast show host, film producer and commercial cinematographer. He’s most passionate about the technical aspects, workflow, psychology of storytelling and sharing knowledge to help others create better content.