Podcasting is a challenging topic for a writer whose focus is technical books. With Podcasting Hacks I could have focused just on the technology angle, demonstrating all the cool stuff you can do with RSS and podcasting technology. But while I wanted to do that, I also wanted to cover the artistry of podcasting. Not just how to get a clean sound delivered reliably to your listeners' iPods, but more than that, to impart real-world knowledge and wisdom on producing podcasts that people want to listen to.
To do that, I couldn't just rely on my own limited experience. So I went out and talked with over 30 successful podcasters, as well as radio personalities, engineers, and producers. I visited studios and spent time on both sides of the microphone. It was a fascinating journey. I brought all of that experience into the book. And a few friends I met along the road added a few hacks as well.
In this article, I'm going to do a little condensation of the content in the book and give you ten ways to improve your podcasts. There is no priority to their listing, though the first five tips cover some of the basics: getting a good microphone, proper microphone technique, show preparation, reducing noise, and formats; the latter five are more concerned with the content of your show. All are practical methods for improving both the sound and the content of your show. Feel free to take from them what you will and leave whatever you don't agree with on the floor.
Getting the right microphone has been a hot topic since the beginning of podcasting. The options range from staying with the computer's internal microphone all the way to buying several high-quality microphones, each for a different task. At the end of the day, you will want a microphone that sounds good enough that people will no longer hear noise that distracts them from listening to you. Sure, the Nixon tapes sounded like garbage, but everyone listened to them because the content was compelling. I doubt, however, that your musings on advanced navel-gazing will be given the same deference.
What's a good microphone? Generally speaking, a podcaster using their home office as a studio will want a large-diaphragm, cardioid condenser microphone. Condenser microphones have more clarity and resolution than their dynamic microphone counterparts. And "cardioid" means that the microphone has a directionality to it. Sounds in front of the microphone will sound far louder than those behind the microphone. Omnidirectional microphones, which hear sound evenly in all directions, are not ideal for podcasting, because your voice will sound far away, and other sounds in the room will be included in your recording. A large diaphragm just means a larger surface to pick up the pressure variations that are caused when you speak. Any studio microphone that is used for radio will have a large diaphragm.
To use a condenser microphone, you will need to provide it with phantom power. Some microphones have a battery, while most take their power from the three-pin XLR cable. That means you have to hook the XLR into something. You can't just hook it into your computer directly. I recommend getting either a preamp that supplies phantom power to the microphone and converts the signal to a 1/8" or 1/4" output, using a portable mixer, or getting a FireWire or USB preamp box that both powers the microphone and digitizes the signal.
A good quality studio microphone will start at around $100. Mixers and preamps can start at around $100, and USB or FireWire preamps will run in the $200-$600 range. Podcasting Hacks has extensive coverage of many different microphones and connectivity options.
One more piece of advice about microphones: don't try to find a single microphone that is good in both the studio and in the field. Studio microphones need to be sensitive and low-noise. They are too delicate and unwieldy to take into the field. Field microphones need to be rugged and have excellent noise rejection. For this reason, field microphones don't have the best possible sound. If you want to do field and studio work, get two microphones. And get a portable recording rig to support the field work.
Proper microphone technique is a term that you hear a lot in podcasting forums. People will tell you if you have it or don't have it, but will be at pains to tell you what it is, because good technique is often a blend of many factors, including physical positioning, diction, speed, mouth form, presence, and more.
By far the easiest problem to fix is microphone positioning. To start, you should be about a hand's width away from the microphone. Put your thumb at your lips and your pinky on the microphone and use your hand as a spacer between the two. That is close enough to get some bass boost from a microphone's proximity effect, but not so close that you are eating the microphone.
Proximity effect is a feature of almost all condenser microphones, as well as many dynamic microphones. The effect is readily heard as you approach a microphone. Standing back from the mic, your voice will sound thin. As you approach the microphone, you will find that it picks up a lot more of the bass in your voice. That gives you a much fuller sound that is pleasing to listen to. Of course, you can take it too far and give yourself the "voice of God" effect if you get too close.
In addition to the distance from the microphone, you can also adjust your position relative to the microphone. Ideally, the microphone should be slightly above you and off to the left or right by up to 45 degrees. The vertical elevation will cut down on mouth noises. And the left or right adjustment will suppress "plosives." Plosives are the bursts of air that come out of your mouth when you say hard consonants like "p" or "b." These will create a popping sound unless dampened. Another way to dampen plosives is to use a popstopper. These are small screens that are positioned between your mouth and the microphone. They don't alter your sound, but they do stop large onrushes of air. You can buy these commercially for between $20 and $30, or use one of the do-it-yourself recipes on the Web.
I strongly recommend putting your studio microphone on a stand or flexible arm, and then experimenting with the position of both yourself and the microphone until you find a setup where you feel comfortable and the sound is good. Holding the microphone will create handling noise, which are loud thumps in the signal that will ruin your recording.
As you are experimenting to find the right position, you should wear a pair of monitor headphones. These are headphones that immediately replay the sound being recorded. This way, you always know what the final product will sound like. It's a major bummer when you record thirty minutes of show only to find that the gain was way down or way up. You can use any cheap pair of headphones for this purpose, but I would avoid "open air" headphones. These are great for playback, but will let in too much outside noise to give you an accurate impression of your sound. A good rule of thumb is that anyone who has their own mic should be wearing monitor headphones so that they can adjust their voice and position for optimal recording.
In Podcasting Hacks, I was very lucky to get the help of Vicki Merrick and Emily Dohahoe, both of whom are experienced voice coaches for on-air personalities. They contributed their expertise as a hack in the book and it's chock full of information on how to build a great on-air voice and presence.
Preparation is the key to a great podcast. All of the podcasters I interviewed prepared some level of notes for the show in advance to remind them of the topics they wanted to cover and specific information about each topic. Let's face it, putting on a pair of headphones and listening to your own voice as you record a podcast is not something that comes naturally to most people. The more you can do to eliminate the uncertainty and stress, the better.
I recommend against completely scripting your podcast. A personal podcast having a script that you follow completely will end up sounding stiff. The one exception is audio theatre, where a script is essential because it's an on-air play that requires choreography between the players.
The world is a lot noisier than you realize. Your brain filters out a lot of the noise to allow you to concentrate on the more important sounds. Microphones have no such filter, and you will find that your recordings will have a very accurate rendering (and annoying) of the noise in your environment. There are two types of noise that you need to address.
Environmental noise is the most common form of noise in recordings. This noise usually comes from air conditioners, fans, fluorescent lighting, and refrigerators. Power off as much as you can. If that doesn't do it, you can try recording in a closet with lots of clothes. The clothes will act as a sound barrier. Another trick used by field reporters is to pull a blanket over themselves on the hotel bed. A trick used by musicians is to record at night when traffic is usually lighter and there are fewer planes and helicopters.
Another source of this type of environmental noise is your computer. Both desktop and laptop computers have fans that are readily picked up by microphones. If your computer is doing the recording, then one option is to use a hardware device, like an MP3 player/recorder or a solid state recorder like the Edirol R-1, to do the recording work. These devices have no moving parts and are thus devoid of audible noise.
The other type of noise is signal noise. This is noise between the microphone and the recording device. With simple setups, this can be caused by the use of an unshielded microphone cable. This is yet another reason to use XLR cables, which have an extra lead to avoid noise from interference. Always use the shortest possible microphone cables. In more complex audio setups, you may be also running into ground loop problems, which present themselves as a 50Hz or 60Hz hum.
Podcasting Hacks covers noise and noise reduction in detail. The book covers both reducing noise during the recording, and using filters to reduce the noise in post-production.
Whether a podcast should have a structure is a topic of hot debate in the podcasting community. Some podcasters produce their shows with no structure or editing, while others go the other extreme of producing the show to the same level as professional radio shows. The structure of a podcast is called a format, and is composed of a set of elements with some form, topic, and duration. Often, these elements recur over several shows and advocates of formats argue that this keeps people coming back. They may hate your show, but they will come back for one goofy segment you always do.
In Podcasting Hacks, I dedicated Chapter 4, "Format," to formatting. The chapter starts with the basics of formats and then I talk with podcasters who represent some of the best of the different types of shows bring you into their production process. For example, Michael Geohegan talks about how he puts together his Reel Reviews movie review show, Stacy Bond covers how to build a news show from her years of experience producing public radio's California Report, and Tony Kahn talks about his process in developing his excellent Morning Stories show.
As I interviewed the successful podcasters for the book, a few common elements came through. The best of the podcasts were a two-way conversation with the listener. Because podcasts are recorded in advance and are time-delayed, this obviously wasn't a real-time conversation. But the podcasters used a combination of text email, attached sound files, and online answering machine services to receive feedback from their listeners. This feedback would give them ideas about where to take the show, and would often be incorporated directly in the content of the show.
A common thread with the radio professionals I talked to was that they always "respect the listener." Audio has to be listened to in real time. That means that you are asking your listeners to spend a lot of their valuable time listening to your show. Would you listen to your show? Do your friends listen to your show? Find out what people want and find the happy medium between what you want to talk about and what your listeners want to hear.
Even though podcasting is a subscription medium, a schedule is still valuable. You will want to find a schedule that works for you, let your listeners know when they should expect your next show, and give some idea of what will be in the next episode. This is one of the ways to follow the old entertainment maxim, "Always keep them wanting."
From my interviews with podcasters, I found that 15 minutes of show took between one and four hours to produce, from starting through show prep, recording, editing, and uploading. Shows with little editing were on the low end of the time scale, while highly produced music shows were on the longer end of the scale. Think about your weekly schedule and how much time you have to give over to your podcast, and then decide for yourself how long the show should be and how often you will be producing a show.
Talking too quickly is a very common mistake. If your podcasting routine is to practice your podcast a couple of times before recording it for release, then you need to watch your pacing. As you get more comfortable with the content, you may find yourself speeding up your pace and you will need to keep an eye on that as you record. Give yourself enough time to slow down and to try enough times to get the podcast to where you want it.
Another element of the speed problem is being tense. Audio recording, with the presence of a microphone and hearing your own voice through the headphones, is alien to most people, and it's tough to be relaxed while doing it. As I mentioned in the first section, preparing show notes in advance can help make you more comfortable. Another technique is to avoid caffeine. So no soda, coffee, or caffeinated tea, though an herbal lemon tea is often used to relax, loosen up the throat, and to keep the mouth moist without getting too sloppy.
Another cause for stress is unrealistic expectations. Adam Curry, the king of podcasting, makes shows that are very well-produced. It's no wonder, since he spent years ad-libbing on MTV as a VJ. He sets a very high bar that many people find tough to live up to. You shouldn't feel that you can sound as professional as he does right off the bat. The successful podcasters I talked to were happy as long as each show sounded and felt better to them then the previous show. Almost all of them were unhappy with the sound of their voice.
My suggestion to anyone looking to start podcasting is to try a beercast. A beercast is a podcast from a bar. The setup is simple: four cheap but rugged microphones are positioned around a cheap Behringer mixer, which is attached to a cheap MP3 recorder. A theme is presented to four random participants and the action begins. It's fun, easy, and really enjoyable. To find out more about beercasting, read Gregory Narain's beercasting hack in Podcasting Hacks.
I bring up beercasting, because it demonstrates a key principle in podcasting: bring a friend. A conversation is always far more interesting to listen to than a single-person monologue. It takes a special type of personality to pull off a long single-person show. It's far easier to podcast when you are working with someone else. When they are talking, you can think about what to say next, and vice versa. In addition, having a partner will help you stay motivated to produce your podcasts and to stay on schedule. At the time of this writing, seven of the top ten podcasts on Podcast Alley were shows with multiple hosts.
Ben and Jerry had a great motto when they ran their ice cream company: "If it's not fun, why do it?" If you don't like what you are doing on your podcast, don't do it. Nobody wants to listen to you be unhappy about your podcasting effort. If you don't think your show is working, change it. If you love what you do, then that will come through in the passion that you bring to your show.
Audio is a uniquely intimate medium. You are talking directly to each person and they are experiencing your podcast on an individual level. Television is a passive medium; the images and sounds are presented to you as a package. You just sit back and watch. Audio, on the other hand, is an active medium. As you hear a story you create an image in your head of what the speaker is talking about. This is called the theatre of the mind.
Imagine if I told you, "I went to my house." If you knew me, then you might be able to visualize my house. But if you didn't, you would then draw a picture of the house you imagine I have. To draw the listener into the story requires detail. It's a blue house. It smells like cinnamon bread from the scented candles. It's an old house and the floorboards squeak. As you read this you are painting an image in your mind; the same types of images that your listeners paint as they hear your show. It's the details that create an engaging show.
This is part of what Tony Kahn teaches in his hack in Podcasting Hacks. When he interviews someone for one of his Morning Stories, he is always looking for the details. What was said, exactly. What they did, and how they felt, moment by moment. Take no details for granted.
The points in this article may sound hard and fast, but how you produce your podcast is entirely up to you. The great value of podcasts is that they create a citizens' media, where anyone with a computer, a microphone, and an idea can get their voice out into the iPods of millions of listeners. If you liked the tips presented in this article, check out Podcasting Hacks. I know you will like it.
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