Getting the best audio quality for your podcast

Peter Letts is SoundCartel’s Head of Audio, with more than 20 years producing world-class audio content for Australia’s best-known brands. And that experience increasingly means podcasts – Peter is most likely Australia’s most experienced podcast editor.

Who better to turn to when it comes to asking about audio quality? We ask Peter to take us through the finer points on creating the best listener experience – so that audiences return.

From a technical point-of-view, what are some of the biggest mistakes you hear in podcasts?

Most of the mistakes I see time and time again are related to how they’ve recorded their audio. Levels too high so there’s distortion, or too low which just brings up the noise floor so it adds to the hiss on the recording.

The other main issue is the environment that they’re recording in. It’s essential whenever you’re recording, in most cases you won’t have an audio engineer with you monitoring everything, so it’s up to the podcaster to listen to everything. So, there might be an air conditioner duct that you listen to every day, so you don’t think much of it because our ears are very good at attenuating anything that doesn’t have much meaning at a particular point in time. Whereas, a microphone will just hear everything.

It doesn’t distinguish between sound. So, if you’re recording something, say, at your home office without headphones on you won’t notice a humming fridge or the clock ticking on the wall, whereas the microphone will pick all that up. I’ve often had podcasts where there’s been an open window and there’s birds chirping outside. There’s traffic noise.

So, the first thing I heard was, my God, why did you continue with the recording? The first thing you should have done is shut the window or if the birds are that loud, move to a different location.

So, it’s absolutely essential whenever you’re recording, leave your headphones on. Also, things like pops. If you’re asking a question, you might hear a really large pop into the microphone. That can be quite tricky to get rid and they’re pretty distracting for the listener. Things like that, you can just restart your question.

Or, alternatively, the talent. If it’s a one on one recording, you can just say “Oh you’re popping a little bit into the microphone there, so just move back a little bit.” And you’ll end up with a much nicer end product for the listener.

If someone wants to create a podcast, what equipment should they think about?

The most important thing is obviously a microphone and something to record onto. That’s first and foremost. Then you’ll need a PC or a Mac so you can label and export the files to be sent off to an editor, which is obviously what I’d recommend. And obviously, if you’re doing an online recording you’ll need the computer so that you can dial up Skype or Zencastr or whatever it is that you’re using.

If you do do a lot of one-on-one recordings in addition to remote recordings, I’d recommend a portable recorder like a Zoom device. At SoundCartel we use a ZoomH6 which is fantastic. It’s very flexible. Has heaps of inputs. Can be used as an audio interface, so you can hook it up to a laptop and plug in your XLR microphone because you’ve got two different types of microphones.

You have XLR or a USB microphone. The majority of podcasters use USB microphones because it’s easy, you just plug it straight into your laptop. I prefer the portable recorder because you can’t really plug multiple microphones into a computer. You can really only select one device at a time.

What about the recording space – how should they set up their own studio?

If you have a space at home where you want to record, you need to treat that space. You want to cut down on all the reflections that you can. So, you might get some acoustic tiles that you can stick on the wall next to the microphone or some carpet on your desk just to calm those reflections down.

You want a nice, tight recording. You don’t want to sound like you’ve recorded it in your bathroom or toilet or something. But, as I said before, the microphone picks up everything. So, if you stand in the middle of your living room and put on some headphones, depending on the size of that room, it can sound like you’re in a cathedral even though you might be just in your living room.

What are your thoughts about organisations repurposing audio recorded from a stage event, or a seminar, or a function?

Repurposing seminars, it’s fine, it can work. But there are limitations. Most seminars aren’t equipped to record professional multi-track audio, which is what you’d want for editing and production. You want multi-track, you don’t want one mono recording of a whole bunch of different speakers at different levels. But in the majority of cases, that’s exactly what it is. So, you’re basically at the mercy of the skills of the AV person who’s recording the session on the day. Some of it can be fixed, obviously, in post-production, but ideally, you want your audio in the most flexible format which would be individual tracks. You really need more, sort of advance skills here.

Seminars will often use extra visuals and things to reinforce the stuff that’s being said on stage. That won’t always translate into audio. And those presentations can be pretty dry. Audiences much prefer the intimacy of a one on one recording, as opposed to someone presenting on a stage to a packed concert hall. Many recordings of a seminar will have that big reverberant sort of auditorium sound. Going back to the experience of the listener, it just detracts from that. An up-close, well-recorded conversation is so much more engaging for them.

We interviewed Peter Letts on Episode 4, Season 3 of Podcasting Essentials