Beginners Guide to Producing a Podcast (Part I, Before you Hit Record)

Why Podcast?

Podcasting is a great way to reach an online audience with whatever it is you do. You can provide useful information about your specialist area of knowledge or skills, give advice that is helpful to people, and in the process, build a reputation and raise your profile.
Eg. If you work for a university, you could record an interview with a professor each week. Talking about their particular line of research, presenting valuable information for students, colleagues or anyone else with the internet. Whilst providing a public service you would also be raising the profile of the university.

If you need convincing even more then check out this list from becomeablogger.com Ten Reasons to start a Podcast

Okay lets get started.

How to Make a Podcast that Sounds Good

Although content is key to making an engaging programme there is also a technical element involved in order to get your amazing programme out there into the world. I have frequently found that many podcasts have been recorded and processed so badly that they become unpleasant, distracting and worst case, unintelligible. Surely the last thing you want is for your listeners to turn off all that wonderful content? So I’m going to share with you some tools and processes you can apply and help you avoid the common pitfalls that many podcasters make.

Remember this mantra:

        “You put crap in, you get crap out”

So right from the recording process, before you even think of hitting record, you can make all the difference here and save yourself a lot of work further down the line.

Things to Think About Before Hitting Record

 1) Environment:

coffee house
Photo Credit: Alex Barth, Creative Commons

Is there any background noise?

If the noise in the background is too loud it will end up all over your recording, you don’t want that right? You can either move to somewhere more suitable or if you want some of the ‘hub-bub’ of the cafe for example, you might have to adapt your timing around the sound of the coffee grinder.

Are you in a location with a lot of echo?

Eg. A shiny hard walled location such as school PE hall will reflect the sound around it for a longer time than say your living room, words are masked by the ‘tail’ of the previous word and overlap each other making an incoherent mess.  Different locations have more or less echo. Hard reflective surfaces reflect sound, making a lot of echo. Things like curtains, soft furnishings and heavily cluttered rooms will absorb the sound, ‘deadening’ the room.

Acoustically treated recording studios are designed to have the ideal balance between an ‘echoey’ and ‘dead’ sounding room which is also ideal if you have access to one but it isn’t always possible.

It’s helpful to be aware of these things so that you can choose your location carefully or adapt a room to your needs; moving furniture; putting up a thick wall hangings; positioning your subject away from shiny surfaces etc.

Tip: You can do a clap test to check the ‘echoeyness’ of a room. Just clap your hands and listen to how long it takes for the sound to die away. Try a few different places to get a feel for it.

2) Equipment:

Equipment
Photo Credit: Danmccoomb.com

Is the microphone suitable?

This is a BIG factor in quality. It makes a big difference in sound quality to get the best microphone you can afford. When I say best I mean if you’re recording on your smart phone it won’t sound as good as a dedicated setup like a Zoom H4n or similar. Find out if your mic is a condenser or a dynamic. Condenser mics are more sensitive to high frequencies and will pick up even the smallest sound. They sound cleaner but they also pick up other background noise as well.

Find out about whether your microphone is stereo or mono and which way it picks up sound so that you can position it towards your subject. It sounds daft but I have seen people using the wrong side of a mic to speak into before!

Have you positioned the mic accordingly?

Depending on the type of mic you are using the position can vary but for most people they are using a hand held (usually a solid state recorder equipped with a stereo pair of condenser capsules like a Zoom H4n) For an interview scenario I would position the recorder resting on my knee whilst sitting with one mic pointing towards myself and the other towards the interviewee. This gives a nice separation to the two voices (if that is the effect you desire of course). It also means you don’t have to move the extremely sensitive mic towards the person who is talking. Handheld recorders are prone to pick up handling noise so watch out for that. You could also position the mic between you in the centre of a table, although be aware of knocking the table as this sound will be picked up by the mic.

Have you checked your recording levels?

zoom-screen
They look a bit like this (the big bars at the bottom showing signal in the left(L) and right(R) channels )

USE HEADPHONES! Before you begin recording do a sound check. This doesn’t have to be too formal just make sure you have sound coming in whilst you listen in the headphones. You can also look at those level meters while you’re at it.

Notice the numbers on the display under the bars? going from -48, -24, -12, etc? They represent a logarithmic measurement of sound pressure coming into the recorder called decibels (expressed as dB). It is a negative scale so -48 would be really quiet and -12 would be pretty loud.

0dB is the maxium level of sound that can be captured. If the sound is louder then the recording will sound distorted. If the sound is too low (eg. -48dB) then you may hear what is known as the ‘noise floor’ which could be noise of the electronics in the equipment.

In digital recording we are aiming to get the level meters to ‘dance’ around between -18dB and -12dB. Known as the “sweet spot” , this allows enough headroom so as not to distort (which sounds bad) and enough level to be above the noise floor (which is..err.. noisy).

In the example we are seeing a good peak level at around -16dB.

Tip: Some recorders have a limiter so as to avoid clipping/distortion. Turn it on if your dealing with very dynamic (alternating between very loud and very quiet) sound levels as a safety measure.

3) Media Format:

What media format are you recording in?

Your digital recording device will have a finite memory/recording time, so your decision on format and settings should factor this in.

Choice of digital recording medium equates to something like this:

High quality sound = Big file size = Shorter recording time

Low quality sound = Small file size = Longer recording time

Okay so in a perfect world you want the highest quality audio you can get, even though you’ll be encoding this recording later into a significantly lower quality and smaller MP3 file for use on the web. Recording in high quality means that later when applying processing we’re working with the most accurate representation of the original sound source. Eg. if you were to process an MP3, (that has been squashed, reduced, adulterated, trading higher quality for smaller file size…) unwanted artifacts can appear that aren’t meant to be there. You would be processing the artifacts too. Remember what I said earlier? You put s#*t in…..

I advise you to record in what is known as ‘Lossless’ audio formats such WAV (PC) AIFF (Mac). ‘Lossy’ formats include those that are data compressed such as Mp3, try not to use these if you don’t have to.aiffWAV_file_icon

You can usually set your recording medium parameters by going into recording settings on your device or something similar. These formats usually come with a couple of options that will affect quality, such as sampling frequency (Measured in Hz), bit depth (bits). I find that 44,100Hz, 16bit (CD Quality) would be a minimum for me and wouldn’t find myself going higher than 48,000Hz, 24bit for an interview scenario.

Okay so now you’re allowed to record 🙂

If you want to learn about the next stage, read part 2!

Beginners Guide to Producing a Podcast (Part II, Post Production of your Podcast) 

 

For further reading check out these links:

http://www.kookingwithsound.com/2014/04/18/peak-recording-levels-basics/

http://schoolofpodcasting.com/my-definition-of-bad-audio-quality/

http://www.fluidmind.org/articles/podcasting/

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