Better sounding podcasts with these simple tips

Podcasts are a fantastic tool for science communication, entertainment, or brand communication. Especially now, in the middle of a worldwide crisis with many people at home, many have the time and motivation at hand to start their own podcast. A lot of great ideas find their way into the podcast apps – unfortunately not always in an enjoyable quality.

This guide hopefully helps you to make your podcast sound better. I’ll call out a number of effective tools and workflows that use little effort to bring a big effect. Contrary to most guides, I’ll start from the back. Often, you end up looking for help when it’s already too late, so let’s figure out first how you can fix a podcast in post. Obviously you don’t always want to fix mistakes, so I’ll also tell you how to get your recording workflow up to par.

How to fix your podcast in post

More often than not you will get your hand on a recording that has almost everything. It features an exciting conversation, a well built story or just a really fun conversation between the hosts. The only thing is: it is not fun to listen to. The speakers’ tracks are not equally levelled, so one is much louder than the other, there is humming noise in the background and one microphone was on the brink of clipping the entire time. What now?

Of course you can fix it all manually in a digital audio workstation (DAW) – that is if you have the skill to do so. Fortunately, there is a one-stop solution to fix (almost) all errors. The web service auphonic optimises your audio file with surprisingly good results. The most obvious effect is levelling the audio so that the volume doesn’t jump up and down anymore, but it also reduces noise and limits the audio to avoid clipping. It comes with free and paid plans, and can fix single track and multitrack audio, with the latter giving even better results.

The rule of all “fixes in post” still stands, though: Garbage in, garbage out. If your recording is broken beyond repair (like with a very strong echo) not even auphonic will help you. Don’t worry though. There is a surprising amount of audio mistakes that is fixable. Just as an example: below is the volume of a published podcast episode that suffered greatly from varying audio levels. I ran this episode through auphonic and the output is shown above. The episode is much more enjoyable to listen to and all it took was five minutes of running it through a web service.

Better editing with a DAW

So, you fixed last week’s episode with auphonic. Wouldn’t it be nice if you wouldn’t have to fix all future episodes too? You can avoid many issues by editing in a powerful DAW that gives you control over levels, EQ and uses non-destructive multitrack editing (that means all your edits can be undone with no loss of quality).

Using any specific DAW requires training. It may take you hours or days to understand the user interface, but whatever amount of time you spend on learning it, it will pay off hundred-fold when you don’t have to troubleshoot messed up recordings. Here are a few DAW that deliver decent experiences:

  • Reaper (unlimited test period or once 60$, Windows and macOS): my favourite, especially with the Ultraschall mod. The mod extends the user interface and turns it into a podcast focused workflow. Downside: the documentation is still only available in German (the devs are German).
  • Garageband (free with macOS): Garageband offers very basic yet effective music editing capabilities and it can be used for podcasts. It is available for macOS and iOS.
  • Hindenburg Journalist (85$): A dedicated DAW to create podcasts and radio pieces. Very powerful tools and used by many professionals. Look out for promotions where the prices drops significantly.
  • Adobe Audition/Logic Pro: two DAW aimed at the professional market, can be used for podcast production, but come at a steep price. Not very beginner friendly.

One DAW I didn’t mention is audacity for windows. The freeware has many users but lacks one important feature: non-destructive editing. All edits are “baked” into the file so undoing a bad edit is impossible. Especially for beginners this leads to incredible frustration as mistakes accumulate and can’t be resolved without starting over.

Learning to use any decent DAW is an investment that will pay off time and time again. It will make you independent of editors, keep everything under your control and, most importantly, will lead to better sounding podcasts.

Record better audio

Sound recording is a science. Sound engineers invest incredible amounts of time to shape the sound in a room for the perfect recording, buying high-end equipment and sound muffling panels. The good news is: none of that is really necessary for podcasting. (I know that some hardcore sound enthusiasts will scream in agony hearing the truth: all your gear doesn’t make much of a difference.)

There are two principles that will increase the quality of any recording to a solid level:

  1. Keep the distance between mouth and microphone as small as possible
  2. Every speaker gets their own microphone

The two are interconnected. Putting a microphone on a table between to people violates rule #1: stay close. And if you’re keeping the microphone close, you won’t be able to share it.

The reasons are simple: your voice should be the loudest thing the microphone picks up. It should be louder than echo, the other person, background noise or noise from the equipment. You want to record a clear signal with enough room to use EQ and other shenanigans without losing quality. And if everyone is on their own microphone (and is recorded on their own track), you can adjust loudness individually and generally do better edits.

When it comes to microphones, there are more options than it is useful to discuss. I’ll just gloss over the most common things you’ll see on the market:

  • Phones. Smartphones have decent built-in microphones, after all their purpose is/was to transmit voice to another person. If you treat a phone like a microphone (mounting it close to your face on a stand) and speak into the right end, you will get a decent recording. If you need to quickly record a number of people, ask them to use their phones with a recording app and keep the phones close to their faces. Not pretty, but effective.
  • Headsets. Headsets are great. They combine headphone and microphone into one package and allow you to record and monitor the audio at the same time. Cheap wired phone headsets are better than nothing, proper (semi)professional headsets work great in a more serious context. They are also great for video calls as they eliminate feedback. Everyone should own a headset (I’m serious. It improves the quality of any video call by 500% if everyone is using a headset).
  • Large microphones. You see this type a lot on YouTube. A large (and heavy) microphone is mounted in front of the speaker’s face. The microphones often sound great but require discipline and a soundproofed environment. They tend to pick up a ton of background noise while quickly losing quality when moving out of the optimal position. If you’re a beginner and your budget is limited, don’t buy a large microphone. Invest in a good headset and soon you won’t want to “upgrade” to a large microphone.

You can plug most equipment directly into your computer but you’ll get better results with an audio interface. Either you do a lot of research or you buy this one to get 4 input tracks over USB. It costs around 100$. You won’t find anything cheaper and it will certainly boost your recording quality.

A robust recording setup

A robust recording scenario looks like this: a headset plugged into an audio interface, which is plugged into a computer. The computer runs a DAW to record. You edit the recording in the DAW to adjust levels (and edit your story) and in the end, you run it through auphonic if you want the peace of mind of a perfectly levelled piece of audio. What sounds like a lot of work is actually pretty straightforward and only replaces things you’re doing already. The payoff is a professional sounding podcast that people will enjoy for its content and for the way it sounds.

I hope I could help you with this guide. In the future, I will also write a guide on best practices for remote interviews, so stay tuned. If you have questions or comments, reach out to me on twitter) and I’ll update this post with your input.

Joram Schwartzmann

Joram Schwartzmann ist Wissenschaftskommunikator aus Berlin. Er beschäftigt sich mit Pflanzenbiologie und Forschungskommunikation.