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Audio Production Techniques
No matter what type of podcast you're making or what equipment you have to work with, there are some fundamental principles of audio production that apply universally.
Here are a few tips for setting up your space before you start recording:
- Try to find a SOFT LOCATION to record your audio. Look for quiet locations with textured surfaces (try to steer away from large, open areas with smooth surfaces that audio waves can bounce off of) where you can be comfortable spending hours on end.
- Try to find a location that is CONTROLLABLE. Before setting up your recording space, go to the area where you are going to record and just listen. Are there any background noises? If so, is there anything you can do about the background noise? You can turn off air conditioner or (temporarily) unplug a refrigerator to remove background noise, but there is little you can do about noisy neighbors or the sound of traffic from a nearby motorway.
- Prepare a script (to the extent your podcast requires): Some podcasts are very structured and regimented while some are more casual and loose. Depending on how much your podcast depends on being scripted, take the time to develop a working script. If your podcast is about true crime or heavily utilizes statistics, include this information into your script to serve as a reference.
- Make arrangements with potential podcast co-hosts or guests: Very few podcasts feature only one voice; most podcasts make use of the act of conversation. Coordinate with co-hosts or guest to arrange a time to meet -- either in-person or virtually -- and discuss what you'll be covering in the podcast to give everyone involved time to prepare.
- Here are some resources to help with the pre-production phase of podcasting:
Google Docs - excellent free resource for collaborative note taking
Microsoft Teams - used by businesses and project teams to easily communicate and share documents
Slack - great tool for connecting and collaborating with team members
Best practices for recording audio:
- MICROPHONE PICKUP TYPE: first, figure out what kind of pickup pattern your microphone has. The most common are:
- Bidirectional (polar):
- Cardioid (somewhat unidirectional)
- The areas that are highlighted in each of the above diagrams corresponds to where the microphone pickup is pointing.
- Based on the pickup pattern, you'll have an idea of where your microphone needs to point.
- If you are recording solo, a cardioid pattern is perfect; situate the cardioid mic either just above or below (not directly in front of) your mouth, between 6-8 inches away from the mouth. This will get the cleanest recording of your voice while minimizing any unwanted noise coming from the sides or behind the microphone.
- If two people are recording together, either have a bidirectional mic placed directly between (again, above or below the mouths) of the two people talking.
- If 3 or more people are being recorded (and there aren't separate mics for each participant) place an omnidirectional mic in the middle of a space with everyone in a circle around it. The omnidirectional mic will pick up sound evenly from all directions. This isn't ideal if you have participants who vary in speaking volumes, but if you move the softer-speaking participants closer to the mic and louder talkers further from the mic, this can be somewhat mitigated.
- SET MIC RECORDING LEVELS: the optimal recording level (the decibel level where you want most of your audio to reside) is -12db. This level ensures that your recording will be loud enough to hear clearly without too much risk of peaking (having the audio near 0db, at which point the audio will begin to distort. Every recording software or standalone recorder has different methods of adjusting the mic level.
- RECORD ROOM TONE: After getting everyone who will be present for the recording situated in the room and the microphone recording level is set, record about 20-30 seconds of absolute silence. This bit of silent recording at the beginning of your audio track comes in handy when editing because it allows you to reduce background noise throughout the entire track easily AND it gives you some ambient background noise to use when trying to cover up audio edits. We tend to forget that there is no actual complete silence in life, but if you make an audio cut with nothing but blank space on the track, it will sound out of place and jarring. Making sure to record room tone at the beginning of each recording session is a good habit to get into; not having room tone in the editing phase is difficult to work around.
- GET CONVERSATIONAL: both as a way to help set your recording levels and as a way to make yourself and any co-hosts/interview guests more comfortable, try starting out with some light chatting. Talk about the weather, about music, about anything inconsequential. Humans are social animals; we conduct some of our deepest social bonds through engaging in conversation.
- HAVE YOUR SCRIPT HANDY, BUT BE WILLING TO GO "OFF-SCRIPT": while putting together a script in the pre-production phase is incredibly helpful in the production phase, remember that people would much rather hear you speaking naturally than reading lines word-for-word. Also, if you have a list of questions that you attempt to get through at a rapid-fire rate, there could be some wonderful tangents or anecdotes that get lost completely because of a strict adherence to the script. Be willing to think on your feet and stay in the moment of your conversation; if there are any lulls or dead ends, you can always refer back to the script.
- STAY NATURAL: there are plenty of guides on public speaking that insist upon speaking loudly and slowly with purposeful pronunciation, etc. Podcasts are much more personal and intimate than a crowded public address; one reason people listen to podcasts is because they feel like they are hearing a more casual conversation. Be yourself and speak as you normally would if you were having a talk with a friend.
- MAKE SURE TO SAVE YOUR FILE: whether you are using audio recording software or a standalone recorder, make sure that when the recording session is over that you are saving the file properly. For most audio recording software, this simply means saving the project (or session) from the File menu. For most standalone recorders, you have to hit the STOP button to write the files to the device/SD card.
There are many different scenarios that will require you to record podcasts with multiple participants in multiple locations. There are two main ways to handle this sort of recording session, depending on how comfortable you and your co-hosts/guest are in technical recording practice.
- COMPUTER TO COMPUTER: this is when all participants are connected and communicating via an online meeting platform and the audio is recorded from that meeting within the platform or by one podcaster using recording software on their computer to record the audio. A few options will be listed below, but keep in mind that there are several platforms that either record a separate track for each participant or mixes all the vocals together on a single track. When choosing which platform to use, keep this in mind. Having all vocals already mixed is easier, but if edits need to be made or if one participant had a short-lived microphone issue, that will be difficult to cut around in post.
- Zoom: a familiar application to connect and hold audio and video conferences. Easy to use. Can enable automatic recording. Recording already mixed in one audio file upon download. Not the greatest audio quality.
- Skype: used the world over to conduct meetings and interviews. Audio or audio+video option. Intuitive, easy to use. Recording already mixed in one audio file upon download. Not the greatest audio quality.
- Zencastr: web-based audio recording application with multiple-track feature; each participant is recorded separately to be mixed in post-production. High quality audio, though it takes more steps to produce.
- Cleanfeed: web-based audio recording application with multiple-track feature; each participant is recorded separately to be mixed in post-production. High quality audio, though it takes more steps to produce.
- DOUBLE-ENDER: this is when each participant in a podcast recording session records their own audio separately, then once the recording session is over, the audio files are sent to the audio editor to mix together. This method would mean that each participant would need to have their own microphones and know enough about recording audio best practices to get good vocal recordings. Considering that excellent audio can be captured using any smartphone, the Double-Ender method is preferable when possible. This method takes more effort and technical skill, but the results are generally of much higher quality.
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