Podcasts used to be minimally respected, low-effort hobbies and were treated with little respect or care, even by many producers and listeners. You could record one with little knowledge or care about your audio quality and its characteristics, little effort, minimal and cheap equipment, and little time. Non-listeners derided podcasts as amateurs talking in their basement, and many bragged that they never listened to podcasts. Even many podcast listeners complained that podcasts were too long, too many were being produced, and no podcast should be longer than their preferred arbitrary duration.
A few lazy cynics are still fighting that fight, mostly out of defensiveness because they don’t want to believe that they’re missing anything relevant, but they’ve already lost the war. That era has passed.
But a nonchalant attitude about podcast quality is still pervasive. I’ve seen a lot of defensiveness over the last few days from people who refuse to believe that podcasters need good microphones, manifested as an anti-rich-elitist attitude with secondary roots in anti-intellectualism.
Jason Snell and Casey Liss weighed in with a lot of positivity and inclusivity, but I’d like to shift the discussion a bit.
Arguing whether gear matters1 and whether you should spend money on it2 is a misguided and toxic diversion that’s missing the real discussion we should be having:
Making your podcast easy to listen to is worth some effort.
Just as blogs need sensible fonts, colors, layouts, and spacing to be comfortably readable, podcasts need to be listenable. And you can’t make easily listenable podcasts without at least basic equipment and production.
This doesn’t take tons of money and fancy equipment — it takes some cheap equipment, plus a bit of effort and caring about how your podcast sounds, just as you could make a few changes to your CSS in 2006 to make your blog a lot more readable.
You need a suitable microphone and headphones. This is non-negotiable. If you use your iPhone headset or the built-in mic on your laptop, you’ll sound distant and echoey and it will be hard to listen to your podcast. If you don’t record and edit the podcast with revealing, relatively neutral-toned headphones, you won’t hear potentially major flaws — and the audience will.
Your mic and headphones don’t need to be expensive — just suited to the task. (An important distinction.)
A simple integrated USB mic with a headphone port and some reasonable studio-monitor-style headphones are sufficient. You can sound better than most podcasts out there with a Yeti, and you’ll be able to hear almost any common flaw with the MDR-7506, for less than $200 total.3
Using suitable equipment isn’t about sounding good to audiophiles — it’s about making a podcast that sounds good enough for people to comfortably listen to without being annoyed at how bad you sound or how hard it is to understand you. So you might need to buy something — but not much. There’s better stuff out there that you might want to use at some point, but you don’t need to. You just need to be easily heard, and you need to hear what you’re putting out there.
That’s it. There’s no place for elitism or anti-elitism in this argument.
Many podcasters still refuse to do basic editing, audio adjustments, and room treatment. Someone with a basic $50 microphone who puts even a bit of effort into these will sound much better than someone with a high-end microphone who’s doing none of them.
Editing, audio adjustments, and room treatment all sound like intimidating time-sinks, but there’s tons of low-hanging fruit, and a little goes a long way.
If there’s nothing soft in the room, it’ll sound like you’re recording in a bathroom. You’ll be echoey, which is annoying to hear and makes you harder to understand.
You can get sound-absorbing foam panels… or you can just get some blankets and drape them over things in the room. If your computer and mic are portable, go record in a closet or laundry room full of hanging clothes. You’ll sound amazing.
That’s it. “Room treatment” only needs to mean, “Have enough soft stuff in the room so you don’t echo.”
Being conscientious about noise sources also goes a long way. Your MacBook fan should never need to be spinning at full blast while recording a podcast — it’s not that strenuous. If you have a bunch of loud computer equipment, consider recording with a laptop in another room, or turn off whatever’s not essential to the podcast while recording. It shouldn’t sound like you’re recording in a server room.
Basic room considerations and adjustments like these let listeners hear you more clearly and focus on what you’re saying instead of being distracted by annoyances in your environment.
Your podcast can sound much better with two simple and subtle audio tweaks:
Equalization: Voices recorded with too much bass are muffled and hard to understand, as if you’re talking through a pillow. And many microphones accentuate or exaggerate harsh tones in voices around the 1–2 kHz frequency range, making voices sound more nasal or shrill than they really are.
In your audio editor of choice, apply an EQ adjustment that rolls off the bass (and maybe some of the upper treble) and has a slight narrow reduction in or near the 1–2 kHz range, so it’s almost shaped like a very short, wide “m”. (Play with where that middle dip is — each person’s voice will have a different sweet spot for it.)
- Dynamic-range compression (or simply “compression”): Compression squashes volume levels into a narrow range so everyone’s always talking at roughly the same volume. Most audio editors have a simple compressor option with a single knob or slider — turn it up until you sound consistent and loud, but not ridiculous or distorted.4
That’s it. Once again, these subtle tweaks will make your podcast sound better than most podcasts, and most importantly, will make it much more listenable for the audience.
Now, the most feared and misunderstood word in podcast production: editing.
Most people assume that editing a podcast must mean painstakingly removing every “uh” or “um” or stutter or pause with hours of tedious work, so they dismiss editing as something they “can’t” do. But that kind of editing isn’t necessary (and isn’t even a good idea), and again, that’s missing a lot of low-hanging fruit.
Good podcast editing isn’t removing every “uh” — it’s mostly just cutting irrelevant sections out of the show entirely.
First and foremost: as a listener, I should never know that you use Skype.
If you have connection troubles at the beginning, someone needs to adjust their mic, or somebody’s call drops in the middle of the show, cut all of that process and discussion out and start the show when it’s all working. Nothing is less interesting than listening to a podcast work out its technical difficulties.
If a host has connection issues and their voice keeps popping in and out of low Skype bitrates, echoes, robot-voice distortions, or dropped syllables, that’s very distracting to listeners. Pause the conversation, fix your connection issues if you can, and then cut that discussion out of the final show. If one of your show’s regular hosts frequently has these issues, consider the “double-ender” recording method, in which everyone records their side and you sync it up in editing. It’s not as hard as it sounds.
The art of editing is in removing parts of the show that make it substantially worse, but only when listeners won’t notice their removal.
If the discussion stalls while someone Googles an answer, or someone’s dog barks, cut that out — but only if the surrounding discussion doesn’t mention it. Once you get accustomed to this, you can record with editing in mind: if your dog starts barking in the middle of your sentence, wait for her to stop, then start the sentence over again.
If you note the timestamps of problems during recording, basic edits like this only take a few minutes to do. Even if you want to listen back to the whole show to make sure you didn’t miss anything, that’s not unreasonable — if you’re about to ask hundreds or thousands of people to each spend an hour listening to it, surely you can spend an hour making sure there are no glaring flaws. If you don’t even have time to listen to your own show once, consider doing a shorter show.
I Don’t Have Time, I’m Not An Audio Editor, It’s Just A Podcast, Who Cares?
A defensive, derisive attitude toward putting effort into your podcast may have made sense when the medium was new and tiny (or maybe not even then), but those days are long gone.
Listening to your podcast will take time that your listeners could be spending on tons of other great podcasts. Putting in the bare-minimum effort to make it decent isn’t about being an audio geek — it’s about respecting your audience and their time, and giving yourself a better chance of succeeding.
If you “don’t have time” (which really means “don’t want to spend the time”) to make your podcast minimally listenable, or you’re not willing to buy even the most basic, inexpensive equipment to record it acceptably, you’re not taking it seriously. You’re half-assing it. You don’t really want to be making a podcast. You probably don’t even like podcasts. Why bother? Why should listeners respect you if you don’t respect them?
We accept this reality in blogging. You won’t get very far if you publish thousand-word posts riddled with typos with no paragraph breaks in dark gray text on a black background that you didn’t even bother proofreading yourself. Nobody accuses you of being an elitist if you suggest that writers should try to avoid misspelling words and may want to consider reading what they’ve written before publishing it.
Not caring about your podcast isn’t good enough.
Basic podcast production isn’t hard. Just like blogging, it requires a minimal investment in equipment, and you’ll need to learn some fundamentals about the medium.
You can outsource your editing, but you probably don’t need to, and you probably shouldn’t. If you’re the kind of person who cares about what you write and how it’s presented, you should show the same care for your podcast.
And if you put in the effort, your audience will reward you for it. Podcast audiences aren’t usually the biggest, but they’re by far the best. You won’t find more engaged, loyal, devoted fans than podcast listeners. Podcasters know it, advertisers know it, and listeners know it.
You just need to care.
It does, but not as much as you may think. ↩︎
You should, but you don’t need to spend a lot. ↩︎