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Sep 15 2020

Producing a Great Podcast: Elements & Best Practices

man editing podcast with microphone and laptop

Written by Ian Geldart host of Real Legitimate Anthology
September 15, 2020

There’s an old adage in most businesses that goes like this: “You can get something cheap, fast, or good… pick two.” This applies to podcasting as well. You might be a podcaster who has a medium to large budget to play with, in which case you have the luxury, with the right tools, of producing good episodes fast. This isn’t the situation for most podcasters, especially those just starting out. With a low budget, you might choose fast and cheap, produce episodes quickly, and build up a library of episodes in as little time as possible.

This is the route that many podcasters choose to take. It has some benefits; with each episode released your audience tends to grow, the more content you have the more you have to promote on social media, and the more guests or cast members or subjects you cover, the wider your potential audience might be. However, the one major downfall of this strategy is that when a potential listener presses play on their first episode and they hear boring, flat audio that sounds cheap, that sounds like the other thousands of no-budget podcasts, they might switch it off. If this is the case for most of your potential listeners, then no matter how much you promote, no matter how many episodes you release in a month, you are fighting a very difficult, up-hill battle.

The route I’ve taken, and the route I’m going to talk about in this listicle, is the route taken when you choose cheap and good. If you’d like to hear what a no-budget podcast sounds like when you take the time to make it sound good, check out my audio-drama podcast Real Legitimate Anthology. In exchange for becoming a new listener, I will provide you with the following insights! (Or you could steal the following information for free with no consequences.)

Elements that will give you a high quality podcast if you are willing to take the time:

1. Microphone

Every article on podcasting tells us the same thing, and it’s true: the most important part of creating a sound worth listening to is your microphone. Especially these three elements:

  • The microphone itself
  • What is around your microphone
  • How you interact with your microphone

There’s a great article by Maddox Campbell, my colleague at The Sonar Network and host of Break A Wish, about best microphone practices here.

2. Music

Music is a tough one. So let’s get it over with. Every new podcast wants to have the perfect theme song. And then every new podcast struggles to find any theme song. Not only should you consider a theme, but having background music under dialogue (a score) sets the mood, increases the richness and listen-ability, covers up a ton of audio imperfections, and gives you so much of that high quality depth we’re all looking for. The constant issue we have to deal with is music copyright. It is very, very different to illegally download music for your own personal listening pleasure, than to include music illegally in a product you are releasing to the public. Worst case scenario, after a ton of episodes are released your podcast is deleted from all podcast directories for infringing copyright and you have to start again from scratch. Then again, you could also get sued. 

There are 2 ways to go about getting music, make it or find it

If you have some music making skills, experience, or are open to taking the time to learn, you might choose to make it on your own. Make sure to pass it by some friends (or even better, strangers) to make sure it sounds as good as it does in your head. I’ve never put two notes together myself, so unfortunately I can’t help you out here.

Your other option is to find music. Which is almost as tricky as making it yourself. If you know anyone, or even know of anyone who makes music, you can approach them and come to an agreement to either commission a new track or choose from their library. When coming to an agreement, make sure you outline with the artist precisely what you plan to use the music for, how you will credit them, and what happens when you’re able to monetize your podcast. If you can’t commission music, you can also find a ton of music on the world wide web, which is not as easy as you might think. Get familiar with the Creative Commons license agreements here. Creative Commons (CC) is the international bedrock license that covers anything and everything that is public domain or adjacent. One decent music directory where you can find some tracks, and filter searches by license is FreeMusicArchive.org. If you want to drop some coins, you can get one banger theme song on a site like Jamendo.com for around $50 (which will still stand when you monetize), or a whole sprawling library of reusable music at a place like Artlist.io for about $200/year.

Music really brings your whole project together, but as you can see it’s tricky. Don’t let it hold you back from launching, but if you have access, take advantage.

3. Sound Effects

This is much more fun than music, because there’s a lot more available royalty-free under the Creative Commons license. An indispensable resource for this is FreeSound.org, where you can also filter sounds by license and easily find sounds for free that you won’t have to attribute or worry about when you monetize. Many podcasting formats, like interviews, might not lend themselves to using many sound effects, but think outside the box! Maybe your guest tells a story that you want to embellish, maybe you want to recreate a moment that happened to you outside of the studio, maybe you want to enrich some field recording. Of course if you’re doing a full cast audio drama, or even a single voice narrative, you’ll know exactly how to incorporate your sounds. This is a resource that is available to you that, when done right, will give you that good factor.

4. D.A.W.

D.A.W. stands for Digital Audio Workstation, essentially it’s a computer program on which you can edit audio, and it’s where all of the above comes together. If you’re on a Mac you should have access to Garageband, If you’re on a PC you can download Audacity. Both for free. All D.A.W.s are for the most part the same kind of animal, horizontal tracks on which you can lay down some audio clips and adjust the sound. If you have money to spend, and you already have a good microphone, you could invest in Logic Pro X, or Reaper, or Pro Tools, but these can easily balloon your budget and unless you plan on producing major motion picture explosion filled epic masterpieces with aliens and robots and time warping… they’re not necessary. The basic workflow on your D.A.W. will be as follows: 

  • Import the audio files of dialogue of you and your guests into a horizontal track, or record directly into your D.A.W..
  • Adjust the loudness of your voice(s) so that it’s full and clear but not peaking (most D.A.W.s indicate when your levels are too high with a yellow or red colour).
  • On a different track, import and place your sound effects.
  • Adjust the loudness of these sounds so they are noticeable but aren’t the focus and definitely don’t overpower the voices.
  • Import and place any music.
  • Adjust the loudness of your theme music so that it is full and exciting (without peaking), and also any accompanying music that sits under the dialogue and sound effects.

There are plenty of tutorials online that cover how to use each D.A.W.. As long as you’re willing to play around and make mistakes, you’ll learn all you need to know. The more you learn, the more streamlined your workflow will be, and the more you’ll be able to take advantage of these tools.

Here are some basic tips when editing on your D.A.W.:

  • For sound effects and music: quiet is usually better. An incidental sound like a door close or a background crowd will sound more natural the quieter it is. These sounds are there to support and not to be the main attraction.
  • When getting sounds: get creative! For example if you need the sound of several ducks rolling down a hill, you will not find it anywhere. Maybe layer together the sound of some rolling logs, duck quacks, feet running on dirt, and wind blowing and see what happens. 
  • Our ears are pretty good at filtering out unneeded noise. All microphones hiss and all spaces have a room tone. If these noises are steady and unchanging, our ears filter them out pretty clearly. However, when these noises change unexpectedly, listeners notice. Do not go through your episode cutting out noise in between dialogue and leaving blank space. We will hear that noise start and stop with each line of speech. Allow the noise to exist. When you edit two pieces, try and blend them together with volume fades. Treat this noise like one of the sounds you’re working with. If the noise is too erratic, record another room tone, or download one from freesound.org and overlay it to smooth everything out. This will cover most of the noise you’ll find in your sound clips, bring all your sound effects together, and make everything sound more organic.
  • One element you’ll be able to manipulate when editing is tempo. Tempo instructs the listener how to feel and highlights important elements, similar to the way music does. Cut down spaces between lines of fun banter to drive the episode forward, allow them to breathe at key pieces you’d like to emphasize.
  • Don’t obsess the details. A key part of the good element, is that there is a product at the end of the day. Don’t let the fine tuned editing and mixing stop you from releasing anything. To be honest, audiences aren’t going to say, ‘this episode is so well edited!’ they’re just going to say “I like it and I don’t know why!” But we do ;).

These are just some elements you can play with when designing your podcast sound. If you give yourself enough time, be true to yourself, and think outside the box, when that potential listener hits play for the first time the good element will hit and you’ll have them hooked. 

Written by Ian Geldart. Listen to his podcast Real Legitimate Anthology to hear his tips in action!