10 tips for using audio more effectively in podcast stories
There’s often discussion about sound quality of some podcasts. It varies from podcast to podcast. The best podcasts I listen to have great sound and great content.
Sometimes a podcast has wonderful ideas and great stories, that aside it seems sometimes little thought had been attributed to the sound quality of the podcast. This changes how I listen and more often than not I’ll turn off.
Let’s face it is easy to podcast, but it takes effort to make it sound good.
This article offers 10 tips for creating better sound to support the story of your podcast.
Get the basics right
Really simple this, you’d think? Basic sound works like this. There are four main elements of a podcast. They are music, voice, sound effects and silence. Each one plays an important role in your podcast.
Knowledge of how these work in your podcast are really important and how you apply these building blocks can change a podcast immediately.
Music can change the emotion, pace and over all feel of your production. Choosing the right music can help your podcast thrive.
There is the question about copyright, but there’s plenty of buyout or licensed music available on the Internet. Spend some time looking at the music description and to understand if it fits your brand.
You should also consider supplementary music within your podcast too. However, it’s not advisable to use copyright music in your podcast. Read our note son copyright music and licensing to learn why not.
Voice is the most important tool you have as a podcaster. You might also consider warming up your vocal chords to get you going too. Simple humming exercises, vocal stretching can really help. See our article on vocal warm ups.
Then don’t forget what you drink and eat effects how you sound. No milk, no fizzy soft drinks – warm black tea with lemon is perfect.
Should you worry about your actual voice sound ? – No. We all sound different and your voice is a part of your personality. There are factors in how you sound, for example your age; lifestyle, health and weight have an effect on how you sound.
In fact some will like you and some won’t simply based on your voice and that’s OK.
Sound effects are always important to your podcast. They aren’t necessarily whiz-bangs as SFX, they can include ambient sounds and background noise used to create an effect.
Vocal moments that can be moved around the content which also create an effect, think hmmm’s and urghhs as an example. Sound effects can really add layers to your podcast.
Silence is golden and is under utilised by many podcasters, but listen to a great storyteller and they’ll use silence to great effect. You can distil emotion, passion and pace using silence in the right moment. You can use it aligned to music, speech and sound effects.
Know your equipment
You don’t need expensive equipment to sound great. You can sound really good from as little as a few hundred pounds.
My advice is to go for a digital interface. It cuts out the opportunity for white noise or radio frequency bleeding through analogue audio. Power cables, lighting and PC’s – either way go digital to cut that out, which usually cause interference.
Microphones are important and they can be great a cheep price. Check out our kit advisor section of the website to find out more.
After your voice the microphone is the most important tool in your kit. A simple tip, make sure you are on mic, so many podcasters record slightly off or too far away from their microphone.
Take your right hand; hold your pinky at the mic and the thumb to your lips – that’s the distance you need to be from the mic to get a good sound.
Next make sure you are facing the diaphragm of the microphone. The manufacturers will have printed a small dot or placed their logo to help you understand where the microphone diaphragm is facing. Read more about types of microphones in our kit advisor area.
Focus on your sound
Listeners accept that things go round in productions, it happens. However they are less forgiving if they one piece of audio is much louder than the other. If you need to decipher what’s beings aid it’s a real turn off for the listener.
Therefore, focus on how people sound either in a studio or down the line. Find the best possible clean sound. Try your best to get the sound levels similar. With your recording device make sure your levels peak at around -3db for each sound source.
If you’re recording via Skype or similar you could suggest to your guest that they record a mix minus or aux feed of their audio channel. This is a feed of their microphone without yours or your other guests. It’s often taken off a mix minus or aux feed – on either a digital or analogue mixer. Check the manual to understand how it’s done on your particular set up.
If they can’t you just have to try and get the best sound possible. Some suggest advising the guests to have a similar microphone to you. If you have regular co-host down the line they should have exactly the same set up as you do.
With external recordings you have less control over how it sounds, soundbites and vox pops can add all sorts of background sounds into the mix. The best way is to be in control of that recording process.
Avoid Noise if possible
Noise creeps in whatever we do, however you can take steps to minimise it. Your sound recording is called the ‘signal’ and it needs to be as clean as possible. No matter what you use, digital often being the cleanest, all equipment has a a level of self noise.
Be aware that the more expensive equipment usually means there is a better signal to noise ratio.
To explain some of the noise that can get in the way and how to eliminate it.
White Noise – ‘the shush’ you can sometimes hear in the background of recording. Electrical appliances often cause this from lighting, pc fans and HD’s, and monitors. You eliminate it by finding a cleaner area to record where there is no or little electrical equipment.
Room tone – PC fans, Hard drives whiring and the electrical buzz form some lighting can be picked up by sensitive microphones. I tend to have an SSD hard drive, others record on a portable recorder instead of having their PC’s on in the background.
Wind noise – especially external recordings. A good muff shield or wing shield will help with this. If possible find the direction of the wind and put your back to it, or find a building that can help shelter from the worst of it.
Background Sound – Anything that is causing interference with your signal recording. It could be cars, aeroplanes, music or people. I often find a space to record if outside or at an event, that is quitter than the rest.
Always monitor your sound
Listen to it. I see so many people recording without headphones. How do you know what it sound like? Keep an eye on your levels, remember you want to peak at -3db. There’s nothing wrong with stopping to make an adjustment.
Clipping happens when your mic or audio source is too loud and hits over 0db, you get clicks in the audio. You can try to rectify this if its slight, but if it’s major you need to start again – so it pays to keep an eye on your sound.
Add details with sound
Think about adding complimentary sounds into your audio. Your painting pictures with your audio, as is the storyteller. You can compliment their story with additional sounds. As an example a pen on a pad, rustle of paper, a door closing. All can add depth to your audio.
Don’t normalise everything.
Whilst it’s good to have vocals at a similar level in most podcasts, the rule shouldn’t apply for audio drama podcasts. In this case you’d look to vary the sound of the voice for the dramatics piece.
With speech-based content, double-headers, guests or external interviews consider differing the volumes of some of the content, especially background and ambient noise.
Use layers to add depth
Layers in sound are so important; they prevent things from sounding flat. The music industry has been doing it for years – the band Queen is a great example, just listen to any of their tracks and you’ll hear layers.
Ambient layers are a clever way of adding context to an interview. Imagine taking an external interview with a shopkeeper. You interview the person in question, you then record separate tracks of ambient sound.
Cars outside, people talking inside, shopkeeper serving people, the more you record the greater your audio will sound as you layer these together.
You could add in the sound of shoppers as a transition between the interview creating some light and shade for the listener.
Music can be used in a similar way. It can help create emotion from sadness to fear or concern.
Adding all sorts of sounds into a layer, and at different levels and perhaps panned to left or right can really create a superb soundscape for your piece.
Avoid editing mistakes
Hard editing is where an edit has been cut so tight that next word is right on top of the last word. Many who are new to editing make this mistake. It’s usually because they are trying to edit our breaths or something they’d like cut out of the piece.
You can edit breaths; a simple way is by selecting the waveform of the breath and move in to the middle of the waveform. You’ll be cutting the middle section of the breath; hence shortening it and making it sound natural but not as loud.
You can also select the waveform of the breath and make it quitter by adjusting its volume.
You can also use your ambient sounds from the recording to use as a transition to avoid a tight edit. Hey of you forget to record background ambient sound, and it happens, then find a similar location nearer to you and record that. Hopefully you’ll be able to use this to edit in. Is it ethical? That depends on the subject matter of your piece.
The reason radio stations process their audio so heavily is because they know where people listen. They want their sound to cut through wherever it is heard. That’s one of the reasons they try to make it loud and big.
People listen in factories where there is tons of background noise. People listen in the kitchen on a little radio with the children eating breakfast and all the sound that entails. People use ear buds and walk along to busy commuter routes.
Think about your listener. Where do they listen and adjust your soundscape accordingly.
Practice simply makes perfect.
It may be a little trite but it is true. The amount you do something, and if you’re observant and understand what’s happening, you’ll get better at what you do.
Add to this, listen to other podcasts. Work out what is out there. Pick the best and listen to them and understand what it is they do that makes them great.
For great skilful help for your podcast tune in for Radio Skills for Podcasters via iTunes, Spreaker or Stitcher or pop to Radio Skills our episode page right now.