Wired for sound
In the second part of our series on beer podcasts, Matt Curtis reveals how to get a professional sound from the comfort of your sofa
Tuesday 19 January 2021
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It feels as though in lockdown everybody and their dog launched a podcast. And it should come as no surprise that podcasting equipment was among the best selling items during this period, alongside flour and loo roll of course.
With so many people getting into podcasting it’s vital to make sure your own show has the chops to stand out from the crowd. Finding a unique angle for your subject and content is key and we’ll get into that a little later, but something else that’s crucial is the quality of your audio, and how well edited your show is. This is key to keeping your audience engaged, happy, and ready to tune in to future episodes!
Develop a strong idea for your editorial
Before you drop a wad on microphones, spend some time planning your show. What format will it take? How long will episodes be? How often will you publish a new episode? What interests and excites you most about your subject? Spending a little time on pre-production can take a little bit of the pressure off your recording schedule.
It’s also helpful to spend time listening to lots of other podcasts, both in your chosen subject and outside of it, as this will give you lots of inspiration. Some of my favourite beer podcasts include: Fermentation Radio, Beer with Nat, Good Beer Hunting, The Beer Edge, Hop Forward and The Beer O’Clock Show. Outside of beer I enjoy listening to food podcasts such as the excellent Lecker, and for something a little different, check out the exceptional Blindboy Podcast, my absolute fave.
Invest wisely in your equipment
Investing in equipment can be a nightmare. It’s important to set a budget and stick to it, and remember that there are plenty of excellent independent music shops in the UK with a great range of gear and lots of advice from expert staff.
You don’t need to break the bank when it comes to microphones, especially if you are recording at home. Things get more challenging if you have more guests, as they should all have the same microphone for consistent sound. If you are recording in the field such as at pubs or breweries, I’d advise in getting a different type of microphone. Condenser microphones are great for home recording, they’re sensitive and sound great—but can be a disaster recording in a noisy environment, as they’ll pick up a lot of background noise. In these situations a dynamic microphone will work better, but make you guide any guests on how best to speak into the mic, to make sure you get a clean recording.
USB microphones are really convenient, but if you’re wanting to record multiple sources of audio, you’ll need to invest in either a field recorder, or an audio interface. These days you can get one device that does both of these things. Like with microphones, more expensive versions will give you better sound, but such is the range of equipment available these days, you can get a lot of bang from your buck.
The last thing to consider is your editing software. A lot of equipment such as USB microphones come bundled with free software, but these are generally “light” versions. Paying a little bit for your editing software often means you’ll get additional plug-ins that help you tweak your sound. You can get a decent USB mic for around £100 these days, but if you had a little more cash to spare, I’m a firm believer in making the investment if you want to improve your sound. If this outlay seems steep, break down how much you spend on beer every six months and decide if you still think that’s the case!
Best recording practices
When it comes to recording, spend plenty of time learning your gear before you start recording your show. This will mean you’re not scrabbling around trying to figure out how to get something to work in the middle of an important interview.
In terms of recording, you’ll want to leave plenty of “headroom” and aim to record your audio at between -12dB and -6dB. This will prevent you picking up any nasty distortion called “clipping” which is very difficult to edit out, and ensure that you have space in post-production to use a few audio enhancing tools for a clear, crisp sound.
You’ll also want to try and avoid picking up too much echo or “reverb” in your recordings (and you can always add this back in during the edit!) Make sure your subjects are close to the microphone, about six inches to a foot is a good guide with most mics, and avoid tiled or reflective surfaces like windows or mirrors, as this can make your recordings sound excessively harsh. Good audio is at the heart of good podcasts, and it’ll also make editing all the easier.
Producing a tight edit
I am a huge fan of producing a tight edit. This means being pretty brutal with your source audio. Does your guest go on a rant that’s boring or has nothing to do with your topic? Cut it out. Have you been monologuing for 20 minutes about nothing in particular? Chop it down to five minutes of good stuff. It’s challenging making a call about what needs to go in these situations, so try to remember the old mantra of “kill your darlings” — consider the listener and what they are most interested in.
Make notes and leave markers as you edit to help you keep track of things. Also try “comping” your audio by removing any erroneous “errs” or “umms” as this will help things flow. But be careful of overcompensating and making your guests sound like robots.
Mixing, mastering and post production
When it comes to putting the finishing touches on your podcast, it’s time to roll out the plugins. These tools are the key to getting your sound to sparkle. Here’s a few of the essentials:
Equalisation/EQ: Useful not just to boost the mids and treble in your voice recordings, but also to get rid of any nasty harshness at the top end, or excessive boominess at the low end. EQ is as much about taking away as it is adding. My advice is to use sparingly and not in the extreme.
Compression: The podcasters best friend! To explain compression simply—it squashes your sound, reducing the volume when things are excessively loud and boosting it when it’s too quiet, giving you steady, consistent audio. If you are a bit confused by all the controls on your compressor, head for the presets. Most software comes with these and often has “broadcast” settings, super useful for podcasting. Compression will also help you get a bit of volume added into your mix.
Reverb: Used sparingly on podcasts, a little reverb can bring recordings to life. If you record a very “dead” sounding interview setting your reverb to a “small room” setting can make your interview sound like you’re out in the real world. Depending on your style, however, you might want to avoid this completely, especially if you are seeking a classic radio or voiceover style sound.
Limiter: A limiter is a super handy tool that ensures your finished audio is at a consistent volume. The final “master” of your edited podcast should be at 0dB, and—this part is crucial—you want all of your episodes to be at the same volume. Listen back to your finished episodes and check they’re of a comparable volume to other podcasts too. There’s nothing worse than cranking up the volume for a quiet recording, only to get an ear shaking when the next episode is twice as loud. That’s one way to instantly lose listeners.
I could reel off several more reams of A4 about ways to build on this, but I’ll leave it there. Most importantly, remember to have fun. Especially if you’re talking about beer. Happy Podcasting!
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