On Designing Audio for a Podcast

While it seems that everyone today is launching a new podcast, few know how to do it. Though on the surface it might appear easy, the devil is in the details. Here’s the right way to approach the task.

The first step with any podcast — as with any professional audio project — is to define the story and establish a workflow to tell it effectively. This forces the producer to focus on the content, to ask the right questions and to specifically deal with how to get from point A to point B in the production.

These are simple, but obvious issues. What is the subject of your audio podcast and how will the story be told? Will it be done live or pre-recorded? How many voices will be heard at the same time? Will there be interviews? Will they be done in person...or remotely? Will Skype or FaceTime be used? Will the podcast be produced in a studio or on location, or perhaps both?

Will music or other pre-recorded openings be used? How will sound elements be inserted? If the show is done on location, what natural sound will be used? See where I’m going with this. There are a myriad of details. Yes, it’s like a full blown radio broadcast — except it is usually produced outside of a traditional radio studio.

Of course, none of these technical issues matter without a compelling story idea to drive the podcast. This is where most people run into the real problems. They come up with a subject for two or three shows and then the ideas stop coming. At that point, the whole podcast fizzes out. This is what separates the amateurs from the professionals among podcasters.

Audio podcasts have won out over video podcasts — perhaps because most people have more ear time than eye time. The programs are often heard in cars, on mass transportation or on portable audio players. Some popular podcasts have become very profitable for their owners.

Podcasts are cheaper than ever to produce. The cost of podcast gear is very low. The cost of entry is a reason so many people attempt to produce them. But it is also the reason for so much failure. Remember when everyone tried to make music CDs on their home computers? Did you ever hear a really good one done this way? I didn’t think so.

Alex Knight does sound design for a podcast in Avid Pro.

Alex Knight does sound design for a podcast in Avid Pro.

Let’s say you have come up with a good idea, have created an efficient workflow and have setup the gear package. You are ready to go. Once you begin, it will become apparent how good low-cost gear can be. Recording the human voice, which is what is done with most podcasts, has become remarkably good and simple to do.

But remember, the ambient sounds surrounding the voice also matter. If you are having conservations with people in a diner, for example, the natural sounds and interruptions of a normal diner are important to the effect. If the interview is done in a studio, another audio esthetic is needed. Make the sound fit the setting where the activity is happening.

Podcasts, by nature, are mobile. So let the action go where it will and go gentle on any artificial processing. Yes, fix obvious problems if you can, but make the fix as natural as possible. Draw the line at problems that can interfere with the listener’s ability to enjoy the show. There are many tools to fix audio problems, but for podcasts, basic toolkits like iZotope’s RX or Waves Restoration bundle are enough.

Outside of doing minor fixes, stock EQs, compressors and other tools built-into most of today's digital audio workstations do more than is necessary for podcasts. Keeping it simple not only makes your work move faster, but means less to learn from different systems.

Marc Maron hosts former President Obama in his garage podcast studio.

Marc Maron hosts former President Obama in his garage podcast studio.

As for the natural ambiance of the content, note Marc Maron’s popular podcast — “WTF with Marc Maron” — which is done from his California garage. Even former President Obama came to Maron’s garage studio to be interviewed. The sound, though it is excellent quality, is not overly processed. It, in fact, sounds like a garage. In the past, Marc has even stopped the show to ask his neighbor to delay mowing the lawn!

The point is, don’t over produce — or sterilize — the audio on a podcast. Use the context of the setting where the show is being done. As with other audio projects, when working on location, record a little room tone at first to fill in any edits that may be needed later.

In some podcasts, noise reduction is used to the point of distraction. It even produces artifacts which are far worse than the noise supposedly being treated. Use reasonable judgement here. If something like processing artifacts get in the way of useable audio, drop it and go with the natural sound.

For issues like sibilance, which can be very objectionable to listeners, definitely try to reduce it. Move off axis from the microphone or follow other guidelines on how to reduce sibilance. Don’t leave something distracting in the final show. That can cost listeners.

When doing interviews over Skype, light EQ might help improve the sound, but listeners accept that Skype quality might be a bit less. Again, don’t ruin the guest’s vocal trying to make Skype sound the same as yourself.

Remember, avoid sterile backgrounds when two or more people are talking, even in a basic interview. Having no atmosphere in any room gets tedious and artificial quickly. Even in recording studios, “air” is needed or it can sound processed. Go with what’s natural, even more so for more informal podcasts.

Also, the very nature of podcasts dictate they may be heard on earbuds, in subways, on airplanes or car radios. Since both earphones and mass transportation produces self-noise, it can be helpful to create a sound for your podcast that can be heard well in these environments. Always remember where listeners will hear your sound.

Loosen up on the audio and concentrate on telling a compelling story. At the end of the day, your audience wants to hear a good story, which is all that really matters. A great story trumps technology any day.

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