A Crash Course in Audio for Podcasters

Once thought to be a fad, the concept of Podcasting has experienced somewhat of a renaissance in recent years, with more and more content creators realising the potential – and benefit – of producing audio-only media. Unlike video shows on YouTube, a Podcast is easier for listeners to consume while commuting to work or even when exercising at the gym. In a world where we all seem to have less and less time, the ability to passively pursue hobbies, interests, or information is invaluable.

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The Importance of Audio Quality

If you’re running a podcast – or just getting started – I can’t stress enough just how import the audio quality is. High audio quality is arguably more essential for Podcasts than it is for video, as your listeners senses are fully tuned to the audio experience without the distraction of video. Poor quality audio recordings will stand out like a sore thumb, so it’s important to learn the ropes.

Fortunately, the equipment used for recording at home has become more sophisticated, practical, accessible, and affordable. There’s no need to settle for the mic built into your laptop, or even a cheap headset; with minimal investment, and the right technique, professional results are more than achievable.

The purpose of this guide is to get you up and running with high-quality audio, without breaking the bank.

Getting the Foundations Right

The most important aspect of any recording project – be it music or Podcasting – is getting the sound right at the source. Therefore, your #1 goal is to make sure that your initial recording provides a good starting point for editing into a finished product. If you’re unhappy with your initial sound, it’s best to return to the start and make improvements here rather than attempt to fix them later down the line.

When setting up your first Podcast, or even if you’re just looking to improve production values, you need to keep the source sound in mind during all three of the following major steps:

  • Choosing your recording location
  • Selecting your equipment, accessories, and even cables and adapters
  • Recording the audio

Even if money and expertise are at your fingertips, there is only so much that even the world’s best sound engineer can do to mitigate the negative effects of a poor recording without noticeably altering the sound. Put simply: the best way to eliminate unwanted and ambient noise is to make sure you do not capture it in the first place.

What is Good Sound?

At the end of the day, ‘good sound’ is 100% subjective. If you and your listeners believe your podcast has good sound, then you have achieved good sound. If you’re unsure, however, consider these components when determining if your audio is up to scratch.

1. Audibility

Does the sound achieve sufficient level that doesn’t require the listener to strain or reach for the volume control?

2. Intelligibility

Intelligibility describes how well the listener can understand the information being delivered. Intelligibility is critical in spoken word recordings because it determines whether the listener accurately hears the difference between words that sound similar. Poor intelligibility can be the result of poor pronunciation by the presenter, poor recording, or simply too much undesired ambient sound or noise.

3. Fidelity

Each component of the sound path can affect the tonal character of the sound arriving at the listener’s ear. If the sound is not faithfully recreated, the realism and accuracy of your recording will suffer and lack ‘fidelity’.

Basic Equipment Needs

With a basic idea of how we want the result to sound, we need to consider the best way to record audio onto a computer in preparation to make our Podcast. Below are some of the options available to you – alongside other basic gear you should consider when getting started.

USB microphone

A USB microphone is the simplest way for you to record high-quality audio on your computer. They provide a single, plug&play solution to get you up and running almost immediately. There’s no need to purchase any additional devices or accessories, as the included USB cable and integrated audio interface handle all the connectivity in a single housing. The quality can vary from model to model – ranging from very cheap and thin sounding to high-quality models with impressive professional results.

Available options from Shure include the MV51 (pictured above) and MV5 (pictured below) – both are also able to record to tablet devices.

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Audio interface & microphone

While a good quality USB microphone can yield great sounding results for Podcast audio, some users will find the all-in-one connectivity restrictive. By opting to purchase the audio interface and microphone separately, you’ll exchange convenience for greater creative control. Instead of limiting yourself to just a handful of USB microphones on the market, you can now select and operate any microphone with a standard XLR connection. If your audio interface allows for more than one XLR input, then you’ll also have the option of recording two mics simultaneously to individual tracks – perfect for interviews or Podcast shows with more than one host!

The great thing about being able to select from any standard XLR microphone is the ability to match the right mic to your individual voice. The fact is, each microphone has its own individual sonic signature – some of which will be better suited to your voice than others. For example, if you have a nasally sounding voice, it makes sense to select a microphone that doesn’t emphasise this quality. Also, if you think your voice sounds a little thin, some microphones with a ‘warm,’ extended low-frequency response can help give you that ‘radio voice’ you’re looking for. A good example from the Shure portfolio is the SM7b, which was originally designed for broadcast applications and is perfect for high-quality speech applications.

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(Pictured above the new Motiv MVI audio interface combined with the new PGA27 large diaphragm condenser microphone)

Other XLR Microphones suitable for Podcasting

While the SM7b makes for a superb broadcast sound, it’s also relatively expensive. If your budget is limited, our PGA58 or SM58 vocal microphones will deliver, smooth, warm sounding vocals at more affordable prices.

All three mics mentioned so far are referred to as ‘dynamic microphones’ – they are durable, relatively inexpensive, and typically produce a solid, warm sound. For those looking to add a little more ‘realism’ to their voice, the alternative condenser microphone type offers a brighter, airier sound that can work better with certain voice types depending on preference. Try our PGA27 studio condenser mic if this sounds more up your street.

Headphones

Headphones are particularly important for Podcast applications where you need to monitor audio without it bleeding back into your microphone – such as interviewing a guest using Skype, for example. A good pair of closed-back headphones will allow you to monitor audio while significantly reducing bleed into your microphone.

Consider a pop-filter

If you’re using a condenser microphone, it pays to invest in a pop-filter. Condenser microphones are more prone to plosives (p’s t’s d’s b’s etc), which can disturb the microphone capsule – resulting in distortion. A good quality pop-filter will catch the gust of air and disperse it.

Achieving Great Sound

Once we’re set up with the right gear, it’s time to start recording. To be honest, the process of recording great spoken word is very similar to recording vocals for music. You can read our guide to studio vocals on this blog for more details, but the basic principles are as follows:

Choose the right space

First things first, make yourself comfortable in a space where you won’t be disturbed. Keep in mind that any background noise in and around the room is highly likely to spill into your mic. This includes any echo/reverberation of sound – so it’s important to control room reflections where possible. If you suspect the room echo is significant enough to adversely affect your recording, you’ll want to take the appropriate action to control it. Home recording musicians will often hang duvets to control room reflections and achieve a drier sound, but if this is not practical, you can purchase specialist filters that attach to your microphone stand and reduce unwanted echo.

When selecting and adjusting our space ready for recording, it’s important to remember the three aspects of ‘good sound’ we covered earlier: 1) Audibility 2) Intelligibility 3) Fidelity. If you can tick all these boxes with how your voice sounds in the room, the battle is halfway won. Remember, it’s almost impossible to correct bad sound further down the line, so investing time at this stage is worth its weight in gold.

Get yourself comfortable

A comfortable presenter is a competent presenter – so it pays to invest some time getting prepared to talk. Consider warming your voice up with some gentle chit chat before throwing yourself into a prolonged conversation. You can help yourself further by keeping a glass of water at room temperature nearby to keep the throat lubricated. Cold water is not advisable as it will shock the vocal chords.

Mic position and technique

The appropriate mic technique will vary depending on your voice and the microphone you’ve selected. Generally speaking, it makes sense to start somewhere between 10 to 20 centimetres away from the mic and adjust distance from there. Microphones will behave differently depending on whether they’re dynamic or condenser, but also depending on their directionality. Most of the microphones we’ve listed are directional microphones; meaning they’re more sensitive to sound arriving from one particular angle. While this does help with cutting down unwanted room noise and reflections, the trade off is a phenomenon known as the proximity effect, which dictates that bass frequencies will become stronger as the mic is moved closer to the sound source. To understand more about how different microphones behave, consider reading our previous post on microphone basics.

With some microphone and voice combinations, sibilance can become an issue. If you start to notice aggressive ‘S’ and ‘T’ sounds, try moving the microphone slightly lower so that it is not in direct line of sight with the singer’s mouth. Try not to get too hung up about the small details, however, and learn to trust your ears. Remember, if you and your listeners believe the sound is good, then it is good.

Mixing & software

The amount of editing required for podcasting when compared to mixing a mastering a song is actually fairly minimal. If you’ve done your due diligence during the recording process, the amount of processing required to achieve a good result should be minimal. On a basic level, all you need to do is balance the volume of each individual presenter – if there is more than one – plus add any intro or outro sequence applicable to your show. On a more advanced level, basic processing effects such as compression and EQ will help refine the end result by allowing you to even out dynamics and cut or boost certain frequencies. But in all honesty, if your base recording is solid, the amount of processing required should be minimal.

Which software should I use?

To achieve high quality edits, any of the free audio editing tools available will do the job just fine. For Mac users, there’s the obvious choice of Garage Band while PC users should investigate Audacity as a free open-source solution. There are plenty of tutorials available for both programs on YouTube to help anyone get up and running with the basics.

Don’t Panic!

If all this seems daunting at first, don’t panic. There is a small learning curve involved, but it isn’t as complicated as it first appears. Those looking for a little extra support on the topic of recording audio for podcasts can download our guide to Home Recording and Podcasting by subscribing below. The e-Book covers the above information in more detail and even helps readers understand the difference between MP3 and Wave file types, which is important when exporting your files ready for uploading to iTunes or any other Podcast service.

Plus: there’s always the comment box below if you have a question. We’d be happy to assist where possible. Happy broadcasting!

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Marc Henshall

Marc forms part of our Pro Audio team at Shure UK and specialises in Digital Marketing. He also holds a BSc First Class Hons Degree in Music Technology. When not at work he enjoys playing the guitar, producing music, and dabbling in DIY (preferably with a good craft beer or two).

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