Building a better podcast: Pro tips to make your audio sparkle (not crackle)

Selecting audio in Audacity

Selecting audio in Audacity

If you’re thinking of starting a podcast, it’s a great idea to grow an audience around whatever topic you are passionate about and boost your public speaking skills at the same time. We posted an article last year on how to get started.

But perhaps you’ve been posting podcasts and can’t quite seem to get the level of professionalism you desire? A good podcast typically sounds like either an energetic conversation or a polished radio program, though this can be hard to pull off without some hard effort and audio-editing expertise.

We’ve recorded and edited 47 weekly episodes of the Busy Gamer Podcast (with more on the way!) and have continually worked to improve the production quality. If you listen to our first and then our more recent podcasts, there’s a world of difference. Benefit from the lessons we learned – often the hard way!

To script or not to script? Our podcasts are tightly scripted, in part to keep them short and tight (they are designed for busy gamers!) and because we want them to sound like professional radio segments such as you might hear on NPR. Some people work better unscripted, though you should at least have an outline to ensure you cover all of the topics you intended. Jacqui actually does really well unscripted (she excelled at Table Topics back in our Toastmasters days!), so she usually ad libs the What We’re Playing section while I write out what I want to say so I can get really detailed and reserve spots to add audio cues. Hers sounds more natural, but mine are often more polished – plus, I would ramble a bit more and forget important details if I tried to improvise. Both approaches have their pluses and minuses, so determine which works best for you – or develop a hybrid as we’ve done.

Outside audio. A podcast about videogames is pretty Spartan without sounds from the games themselves, yet it took us a few months to get comfortable enough with the format to add them. Plus, this added a level of complexity we weren’t ready for back when we first started.¬†Depending on your sound source, there are different ways to cleanly capture outside audio. If the sound is on your computer, say from a YouTube video, you can use Audacity to record it directly. Be sure to shut down any other programs that might make noises first. You can also run a stereo plug from your computer, portable device such as an iPhone or stereo receiver to your podcast recorder (we recommend the Zoom H2, which is inexpensive and versatile). Use headphones or an external mini-jack speaker so you can hear what’s going into your recorder. Be sure to set the levels so the input is neither too quiet or hitting the top of the meters. And remember your settings, so you can be consistent! If you need cables for audio input, check Radio Shack – they have virtually any audio part you could want. Prep your audio cues ahead of time¬†in a separate file so they’re easy to grab when you’re ready to incorporate them into the main podcast.

Capture room noise to cover your coughs. Every time you record, even if it’s in the same place every time, the room noise will be a little different. Lock up any pets so they don’t vie for your attention while you’re recording, turn off air conditioners, heaters and other noisy appliances and aim for a time when garbage collectors and airplanes won’t interrupt your flow. Move anything that makes noise if you brush against it away from the recording area. Use a windscreen (that piece of foam that probably came with your recorder) to minimize crackles and pops. Then record at least a few seconds of absolute silence (no breathing or sniffling) so you have something to cover up any loud breath sounds, coughs and other noises that may interrupt an otherwise seamless podcast. Use headphones when editing to ensure you can hear every detail, and then cut and paste a short silent section over any unwanted noises. I actually create a new room noise file each week from which I draw different sizes of silent spaces, and then I make a leveled room noise file for the final edit pass (more on leveling in a bit). Although sometimes I just grab a silent segment near where the problem is, especially if the audio quality has changed (like on those occasions when a plane gets recorded passing over us during a segment and we didn’t stop to wait it out).

Master Audacity (or whatever tool you use to edit your podcast). My tips here are for Audacity, which is both free and very powerful, but most audio editing tools will have the same or similar features. You may notice that your main podcast segment looks like a slightly bumpy line, making it hard to see what to select when editing. If so, zoom in to blow up the main audio stream so that you can spot the waves for each word and the silences between them. Create separate tracks for different audio sources so you can adjust the volume for each separately. Even though you’ll be leveling everything later, you do want to be able to hear things at roughly the same volume as you work so you can tell how it’s cutting together.

I’ve found I can quickly delete small mistakes (or long segments that are easy to identify) by selecting them in Audacity and just pressing Delete. (If it doesn’t work, make sure you’ve hit Stop. It won’t allow changes when you’re on Pause.) You can adjust your selection by moving your cursor to the start or end line until it turns into a finger, and then clicking on the line and dragging to move it. Give it a listen to ensure you have the right audio selected before taking an action. For bigger mistakes or more complex edits that require a lot of tinkering, you may want to use the Split New feature. For instance, you can select everything from a particular point in your podcast to the end, split it into a new track, find the point where you want to stop deleting and then select everything from that point to the start of the track and delete it. Confirm your edit works with a listen, and then cut and paste the tracks back together.

Work on longer, more complex segments in separate files, then combine them later. Save often! When introducing music or audio that doesn’t mesh with the rest of your podcast, use Fade In and/or Fade Out to smooth the transitions. Fade In/Fade Out can even sometimes fix minor editing mistakes! Don’t be afraid to experiment, you can always Undo!

Dual screens makes editing go faster. If you can afford two monitors (or a single monitor attached to a laptop), extend your desktop to make editing easier. You can open your sound cues and editing notes on one screen and edit the main podcast on the other.

Level and test drive. When you’re done, export your podcast as a WAV, run Levelator and then reopen it in Audacity. Listen through for any mistakes and places that need tightening or mild edits. Then export your final podcast as an MP3. If time permits, copy it to an MP3 player and give it a test drive with an audience – we listen in the car, since this is how we expect most of our listeners will enjoy it. You may find areas that can be improved.

This may seem like a lot of work, but it does get easier the more you do it. Set a manageable schedule for regular releases – at least every other week, so people don’t forget about your podcast between episodes. Don’t take on too much right away. Start small with just your voice and maybe some public domain musical bumpers from Mevio’s Music Alley – and build from there, adding improvements every episode or so.

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