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Guide to Producing High-Quality Audio Podcasts

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Once you have decided on the content of your podcast and mapped it out, it's time to do some recording!

You will need.

  • Microphone
  • Audio Interface
  • Wave Editor

Choosing a Microphone for Podcasting

When it comes to choice of microphone, your content becomes important. You will need to think about you podcast's content, i.e. how many people you will be recording and whether or not they will be speaking at the same time.

If you will just be recording one person at a time, a standard cardioid condenser microphone will be the most suitable. These microphones are designed to be positioned close to the source and will give you excellent sound quality, whilst simultaneously eliminating the most background noise and room 'colouration'.

If you plan on recording discussions between two or more people, you will either want to use a separate microphone for each participant (either condenser or lapel), or use a uni-directional boundary microphone. Boundary mics are designed to be positioned on a table, in the middle of a discussion and will quite happily pick up everybody's voice. Lapel mics are a nice option to have, but quality models tend to be quite expensive. The lower end of the market is typically aimed at amateur theatre production and falls far short of delivering high-quality audio needed to create a professional podcast. In contrast, you can pick up a more than adequate condenser microphone these days (such as the Samson C1) for £60. Samson even make a USB model of the microphone called the CO1U which plugs straight into your computer, negating the need for a dedicated audio interface and potentially saving you a bit of money!

Choosing an Audio Interface

Whilst nearly all computers these days come with a built-in sound card capable of recording, few if any will have the ability to plug into a professional microphone. For this you will either need a hardware mixer, or an external audio interface with an XLR connection capable of supplying 48V of Phantom Power. This power is needed by most professional microphones in order for them to function, although some will allow you to use batteries. Examples of such interfaces are the M-Audio FastTrack (£93), Alesis I/O2 (£109.99) and the Tascam US-122L (£118.99). These small devices connect to your computer via Firewire or USB 2 and take the place of your existing sound card. Simply plug the microphone(s) into the interface and start recording.

Hardware mixers are another option. If you want to record more than two microphones at once, or already have a suitable mixer lying around, this may be a better choice. A basic 4-channel mixer can just plug straight into your existing sound card's Line input and will set you back about £150.

Choosing a Wave Editor

Which piece of software you use to record depends very much on which operating system you are using. There are numerous free options available for both, but if you want some of the higher end features and effects be prepared to pay for them.

Audacity is one such free editor, available for both Mac and PC. Mac users can also take advantage of Garage Band for recording.

Recording Voice

Recording a person speaking is quite straightforward and getting good results shouldn't be too hard, given the right environment and equipment.

If you are using a cardioid condenser mic, you will want to place a pop-shield between the mic and person speaking. Pop -shields protect the microphone from bursts of air known as plosives, which occur when a person makes 'puh' and 'buh' sounds with their voice. Pop-shields are not necessary for boundary or lapel microphones.

Positioning of your microphone depends on the type of microphone you're using and your environment. Recording should always be done in the quietest possible space, preferably far away from noisy computers and other electrical equipment - you will be surprised how much microphones can pick up. In an ideal world, this room should also be fairly spacious and filled with soft furnishings, which absorb reflected sound. This isn't always realistic, not everybody has a specially treated sound-booth in their house!

To minimise the noise from errant pieces of equipment, start by positioning them as far away from the microphone as your space will allow. Secondly, cardioid microphones are directional, and will pick up most of their sound from the direction you point them in. Point your microphone away from any noisy equipment and preferable place some soft, absorbent material behind the subject you are recording to minimise reflections. This will go some way to reducing the sound of the room in your recordings. Smaller rooms suffer greatly from these reflections; they feed back into the microphone and 'colour' the sound of your voice, making the recording sound cheap and unprofessional. Taking these simple steps should go some way to making sure you end up with a clean, professional sounding recording.

In terms of volume, people tend to stay at a fairly consistent level. Once you have your equipment set up and your presenter(s) in place, ask them to speak a few lines in order to get your levels set up correctly for each microphone. Aim to light up your level meter (either on your mixer or in your wave editing software) so that it peaks around -6db. This will ensure you get a healthy signal level, but leave enough room for unexpected rises in volume without 'clipping'. Clipping occurs when the microphone detects a signal louder than the computer can record, this results in unpleasant-sounding distortion which is to be avoided at all costs.

Once you have all your equipment set up and your levels set optimally, it's time to hit record and get down to business!

Depending on the type of podcast you're making, you may be recording many separate parts of voice, which will be interspersed with music or other content. Thanks to the wonders of digital editing, you can record all these pieces back to back and simply position them where you want in the wave editor afterwards. The same goes for any mistakes you might make, simply carry on recording and cut out the bits you don't want later in your editor.

Additional Vocal Processing

Once you have finished recording your vocal content, you may play it back and wonder why it doesn't sound quite like your favourite presenter on Radio X. This is because radio stations apply additional processing to their presenter's voices to give it that rich, warm sound. The two most commonly used effects are Compression and EQ (equalization). Both of these work together to give that classic radio sound.

Both Garageband and Audacity have these effects built-in, but if your wave editor of choice does not feature these as standard, it is most likely possible to install them as VST plugins. Blockfish is a freeware VST compressor plugin compatible with both Mac and PC, whilst Pushtec EQ is a freeware EQ plugin.

Compression is basically an automated volume control that when applied to a recording, will turn down parts above a specified threshold by a certain specific amount. The end result is a sound that is smoother in terms of volume and has the perception of being subjectively louder and fuller. Not everybody (especially untrained amateur presenters or hobbyists) is able to speak at a fixed volume for an extended period; naturally the voice will vary slightly over time. Setting your compressor's threshold just above the quietest parts of your recording will pull down anything louder to match that level. This smoothes out the recording and gives it more 'body'. The lower you set the compressor's threshold, the fatter the sound will be. Be careful of setting it too low however, as over-compression can do more harm than good and will put off your listeners. As a starting point, I would suggest setting your compressor's Ratio to 5:1, your Attack as fast as possible, Release to Auto (if it has that option) and dial in your Threshold until you get a sound you're happy with.

One side-effect of using a lot of compression is that it will tend to emphasize the lower frequencies; this can make the recording sound overly bassy and lacking in clarity. To compensate for this, people will often add a bit of top-end sparkle or 'air'back in with EQ. Typically this would be a small boost of a few dB at somewhere around 16kHz. This depends on the person's voice and you will need to play around until you find the ideal setting. Once you're finished you should end up with that rich, warm sound you're after.

Using Stings, Idents and Effects in Podcasts

If you're trying to give your podcast that extra bit of flair, personality and professionalism, extra content such as Idents and stings could be just what you're looking for.

If you listen to any of the top podcasts, you will likely find they have a definitive brand identity. Most will have Idents or jingles at the beginning and end to let the listener know what they're listening to. Idents consist of a short piece of music, usually teamed with voice-over or effects to identify the podcast. These help to make your podcast sound professional and also build up familiarity with your listeners. Idents are either written specifically for a production, or purchased as stock music from royalty free music libraries such as Beatsuite.com

Stings are another weapon in your sonic arsenal that can elevate your podcast above the rest. You will probably find that when you are putting together your podcast, it will often be naturally broken up into different sections. A gaming podcast may have a separate section for reviews, news and listener's questions for example. A good way to bookend these sections is with stings, this tells your listener that one section has finished and another has begun. Radio stations worldwide use this technique when introducing anything from traffic reports to chart countdowns. They help make your podcast flow naturally and gel together in a more organic fashion.

For that extra bit of polish, spot effects can be employed to add the finishing touches to your production. If used judiciously, they can inject a sense of realism into a narrative, set the mood of a particular section or simply let your listeners know you just dropped a massive tune!

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