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Perfecting your podcast recording

7 minute read

Oliver Kennett
microphone in studio

Long form audio is on the rise. Podcasts are listened to by millions every day on every conceivable topic produced by amateurs and professionals alike.

The accessibility and the relatively low costs for equipment means that anyone with something to say can record, edit and distribute a podcast. Although you can record and release a podcast from your smartphone you need to consider aspects such as the quality and sound.

Therefore in this article, I will tell you how to make a good recording including the equipment you need and the techniques you need to employ. By spending just a little money and a little time you can make your podcast far more pleasurable to listen to, leaving your audience to enjoy your valuable content.

Environment

Before we look at equipment or talk about specific techniques let’s begin with the basics. You need to prepare your recording environment.

Professional studios spend thousands on soundproofing to stop any external noise creeping onto a recording. They also take great pains creating chambers in which all sound is dampened so that the only audio recorded is the source, in this case, your voice and those of your interviewees.

Though you might not have access to such a studio or be willing to rip up your office to install sound insulation, it is possible to borrow the principles of such studios to make the best recording environment that you can.

Pick your room

Though you may be speaking directly into a microphone the sort of room that you record in does matter.

Avoid rooms with lots of hard surfaces such as kitchens and, if the fancy takes you, bathrooms. Hard surfaces reflect sound, making recordings sound cavernous and messy. Instead find a room with thick carpet and soft furnishings such as a lounge or even a bedroom.

Instead of reflecting the sound, the soft materials absorb them making for a clean and controlled recording. Remember, you can always add echo or reverb afterwards, you can’t ever take it away, this is why recording in a dampened environment is always preferred.

If you want to go a step further, you can create a DIY recording booth by setting up your microphone just in front or even inside a wardrobe full of clothes. Hang blankets over the doors and you will get excellent results.

Create silence

The last thing you want is extra sound being recorded at the same time as your content. Shut all windows and doors and turn off any unnecessary electrical equipment such as desk fans, computers or refrigerators.

Remember, though a computer might be silent now, when an email comes in it is likely to add an unwanted chime to your recording. By the same token and unless you’re using it to record, turn off your phone and ask the same of any guests.

Equipment

So, we have our environment picked out and prepared. Now you need the right equipment for the job. This is where it depends on your requirements and your budget.

There are three main elements to a recording setup, microphones, an audio interface and your recording device. Naturally, there are other pieces of equipment that you might need and I will go through them at the end of this section but these three are the most important.

Microphones

I could write an entire article on microphone selection but, you want a quick and simple guide to make a good recording for your podcast. For this I will provide some examples including links to my personal favourites:

  • Inbuilt microphone on your smartphone: Built-in microphones on smartphones have come on a lot in recent years and, at a pinch, you could use it to record a podcast. However, they tend not to be very discerning with what they pick up and they can create a distant and rather thin reproduction of your voice. Good for portability. Low quality sound.
  • Blue Yeti: The Blue Yeti is popular with podcasters everywhere and will cost you about £100. The beauty of the yeti is its versatility. It can be configured to a variety of recording applications including a solo voice, two voices and a larger room though, I’d advise not using it for more than two people as the sound can become messy and there are better solutions out there. Another advantage is that it plugs into pretty much any computer or smartphone and doesn’t require any other expensive hardware. Good for one or two people. Struggles with bigger groups.
  • Sure SM58: Walk into any professional studio and you will find the SM58. It is a classic amongst vocal microphones. It is a dynamic microphone meaning that, unlike the yeti, you speak directly into it. This helps greatly in removing background noise and, in larger groups, isolating each person speaking. Good for individuals in a large group. Requires extra equipment in the form of an audio interface.

Audio Interfaces

Audio interfaces come in all shapes and sizes but they essentially turn the analogue information from the microphone into digital information that can be understood by your recording device such as your smartphone or computer.

Digital microphones such as the Blue Yeti have an A to D converter built in meaning you don’t require any more hardware, whereas dynamic microphones such as the SM58 need something to convert their signal into digital information.

  • Portable sound-cards: These tend to be small and something easily thrown in a bag. Something such as the Audience iD4 has two microphone inputs and will cost about £120. They are versatile and allow you to upgrade microphones in the future should you want to as well as having several connection options for speakers, microphones and instruments, should you want them. Good for portability. The number of inputs can be limiting for larger groups.
  • Mixing desks: One solution for larger groups without spending hundreds on an audio interface with multiple inputs is to get a mixing desk such as the Sub Zero SZ-Mix06USB, about £60. This allows you to plug in up to six microphones before plugging the mixing desk into your recording device. This still limits you to just two tracks, left and right, which narrows options when it comes to the production phase but, if set up correctly, can produce very good results. Good for reducing the cost of recording multiple people. Can be limiting when it comes to editing and producing the final product.
  • Desktop audio interfaces: In an ideal world and if money was no object, a large or desktop audio interface such as the Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 is what you’d want to use. Each microphone can be recorded on one of the Focusrite Scarlett 18i20’s eight tracks allowing for a huge amount of editing during the production process, the trouble is that they are expensive, about £300, and, for the most part, overkill for a podcast. Good for complete control and resulting recording. The more channels you have the more expensive it gets.

Recording device

This is where everything is recorded and it can be on your smartphone, on a computer or on a purpose built recording device.

The app or software you use to record very much depends on what equipment you are using. For recordings where you have just two tracks, right and left, most audio recording applications will be fine, though you might want to check that they can record in an uncompressed format such as WAV.

If you are using an audio interface with more than two channels then you will need specific software that can process multitrack recording such as Garage-band for either your IOS device or your Mac (both free) or Audacity for Windows and Mac. At the professional end of the scale, there is Protools which goes from free to a monthly subscription for more advanced features.

Other equipment

There are a few other things that you will need to complete your recording setup:

  • Headphones: You need these to listen back and to check that everything sounds just right.
  • A pop or windshield: This stops puffs of air hitting the microphone’s diagram and making nasty popping or hissing sounds.
  • Cables (where needed): These will go from your microphone to your mixing desk or audio interface, or they can go directly into your recording device.
  • Microphone stands: Desktop microphone stands can be had for just a few pounds and allow you to record hands-free.

Example setups

Now I’ve covered everything that you could possibly need to record, let’s take a look at specific scenarios and how you might go about recording them.

Going solo

If you are recording just yourself I would suggest a USB microphone such as the Blue Yeti. Select the cardioid option and place the microphone, in its stand, on a table in front of a wardrobe of clothes or, if the street outside isn’t too noisy, a heavy curtain.

Attach a pop shield and then plug the microphone into your computer or smartphone.

Open your recording application, go to settings, and make sure that your input is set to the USB microphone. Now, make a test recording by speaking into the microphone from about six inches away, or about a handspan, if you are like me and poor with distances.

Sit upright, make sure that you speak slowly, clearly and breathe deep into your stomach. This produces a richer and more pleasing tone to your voice.

Recording interviews

If you wish to record yourself and someone else, I’d again suggest the Blue Yeti as it has a setting for just this purpose. Turn the dial to by-directional.

With a similar set up as before, and in a quiet room, sit opposite one another with the microphone between you. Again, make a practice recording. This is even more important as you need to check the balance between your voices.

Play with positioning until you are both the same volume on the test recording.

Three’s a crowd

In the case of recording three to five people, the faithful Blue Yeti is going to struggle. You can use it on the omnidirectional setting which records evenly around it, but the sound can end up being confused and messy if several people speak at once.

Your best bet is a USB mixing-desk. This will take more set up and will cost more but you will get a better result than using a single microphone to record several people.

Set each microphone up around the table on their stands and plug them into the mixing desk and, if it is a USB mixing desk, plug it directly into your recording device, if it is analogue, plug it into your audio interface and then plug that into your recording device.

Use headphones to check levels and pan each person’s microphone so they are spread from left to right.

Ask your interviewees to be mindful of the recording and each other to let everyone talk without interruption. You could even instruct with hand signals to make sure that everyone is aware who currently has the mic.

Open your recording application, again checking that the right input device is selected and make a test recording before committing to the real thing.

Recording a group

It’s doubtful that you’d want to record any more than five people and, if you do, it might be possible to record them in batches rather than all at the same time but, for those of you who wish to record many people your best bet is a sound-card with upwards of eight inputs.

This will give you the control required to separate, edit, mute and shape the chaos that your recording might become however, by this point the cost could run into the hundreds so your best bet might be going into a studio where you might simply hire the equipment.

Final thoughts

The beauty of recording is that the edit can be used to cut out any silences, or unneeded dialogue such as Um’s or ah’s, muddled words or sneezes and coughs. What you don’t want is bad sound quality because, no matter how hard you work during the editing and production stage, you won’t be able to make it sound good. Put the time in at the start and your podcast will sound professional. Good luck!

Oliver Kennett is an author and freelance copywriter living in Bristol. A graduate in both law and engineering, he enjoys exploring science, technology and social impact through his writing. As well as clients in the technology, tourism, legal and lifestyle sectors, he has written extensively for charity. In his spare time he writes short stories and novels for children and adults in the horror, sci-fi, fantasy and humour genres.

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