One of the great joys of podcasting has been that it has democratised audio recording. The days where you needed a soundproofed studio, an experienced engineer and expensive equipment - or worse still, the accursed egg box solution favoured by pirate radio - are long gone, and now anyone can make themself sound professional with a few simple steps.
Indeed many modern microphones designed for podcasting will do the heavy lifting using software, taking away all the echoes and crackles with technology. However, if you don’t have access to one of these tech-laden solutions, you can still beat the pros at their own game with a basic, good quality microphone and a few simple steps.
Use the right microphone
There are two basic types of microphone: omnidirectional and unidirectional (sometimes called ‘cardioid’). Whereas omnidirectional microphones, as the name suggests, pick up sound from all around - great for field recordings - when we’re working from a relatively low-tech set-up, we need a unidirectional mic that concentrates on the sound straight in front of it. In some cases, you may find that your mic does both, and there’s usually a slider switch on the front to toggle between the two. It’s really important that you switch to unidirectional mode, because otherwise, every ticking clock, siren going past the window and snore of the dog is treated equally. Omnidirectional recording can also amplify any echo in the room’s acoustics.
The only exception to this is if there’s a group of you, and you’re all sharing a single mic - we’d recommend you avoid this wherever possible as the results won’t be great, but if you’ve no option, omnidirectional does give you the option to sit around a table and each have a similar sound level. Equally, if you’re “on location” and you want to capture the ambience - perhaps a bustling market or a country ramble, then omnidirectional is your friend - but for now, let’s concentrate on making you sound the best you can be.
Where to record your podcast
As we’ve already said, your DAW or streaming software - or the technology within your microphone - can compensate for a lot of issues that may arise here. But for basic microphones, there are two enemies: high ceilings and bare floors. This is all about the acoustics, and both will cause the sound to bounce around, resulting in more echo. So the optimum position is in an average height room, with carpet beneath you. In an ideal world, it’s better to have your set-up in the middle of a room too, but that’s a big ask for a home rig.
Picking a room with lots of soft furnishings can help dampen some of the echo, as will having lots of objects to ‘baffle’ the sound; conversely, a room with lots of flat surfaces (such as mirrored or tiled walls) will give greater echo. You might consider placing some foam tiles on the wall - but unless you’re really committed or you have no choice but to use an echoey room, this is probably overkill in your early days.
Positioning your Microphone
Position of the microphone is everything. The first thing to say is that, however cool you think you look, holding the microphone in your hand is a bad idea. You’ll lose consistency in the level of your voice unless you stay absolutely still, and when you change grip, every noise will be picked up; ditto if the cable thwacks against something.
Tripods on a table are ok - but they do make it slightly more challenging to get that pro sound because you’re not quite in the line of sight of the mic (more on this later), but you can make this work, although it takes a bit of trial and error, and command of your levels.
The path to the best sound is with a mic arm or ‘boom’ that clamps to the table. You can pick these up for very little money and they’re a great investment. Then you simply adjust the arm to be in-line with your head. For best results, use a scissor-arm - a ‘snake’ type can slowly droop under the weight of its cargo.
Stopping unwanted noise
In addition to the microphone itself, you’ll want to get a pop-screen. These are pieces of mesh, in a frame.They act to filter the clicks and pops caused by consonants like ‘s’ ‘t’ and ‘p’ which can be magnified during recording. Even if your microphone has a foam pop-screen that goes over the top, we’d suggest a pop-screen on the stand too. Again, these are incredibly cheap to buy and clip over the mic or stand.
For a truly professional set-up, you can invest in a shockmount or ‘cage’ - these fit around the microphone and suspend it on sprung elastic. That means that if you accidentally knock into the arm, the shock doesn’t get converted into a huge thud on the recording.
Now it’s time to adjust yourself. You’ll want to sit with the microphone adjusted to be level with your mouth and about 15-20cm away. There’s an old but very simple trick to work out the optimum distance from the mic. Remember when you were a kid and put your thumb in front of your face, hand outstretched wide and went “neurgh-neurgh!”? Do that. The distance from the end of your thumb on your nose to the end of your little finger near the pop-screen is perfect. The surfer “hang tight dude” gesture works too.
Once you’ve got yourself in position, here’s another tip used by many great broadcasters and podcasters from across the years - many of whom are still doing it today. If there’s no-one else in your eyeline, put a teddy bear at the end of the room, straight in front of you. Talk to the teddy bear. It sounds ridiculous, but it not only gives you the confidence of feeling like you’re talking to someone, instead of thinair, but it also keeps your head in position.
Setting the Levels
Depending on your recording software or mixing desk, you’ll either have a meter or a gauge on the screen showing exactly what level you’re speaking at. You want to be aiming to peak at around -6dB, occasionally hitting the red portion of the gauge; if it’s constantly up there, it’ll sound distorted, but if it never gets above the green, you’ll be too quiet. Adjust the gain control for your microphone whilst saying some test phrases until you hit perfection.
Listen to yourself
Finally, you’ll need to check that all of these tweaks are having the intended effect. This is the bit everyone hates - but there’s no substitute for listening to yourself when it comes to ensuring that you’re getting the correct audio quality. If you’re not using headphones to monitor your own voice, you won’t know how it’s sounding - and you may find out you’ve recorded an entire podcast of distorted, poppy mess. All DAWs (and some microphones) will give you an option to listen in on your own audio feed in real-time, so take some time to get used to how you sound through your ‘cans’ - the weird feeling does wear off eventually, and it means that you can proactively make adjustments if something isn’t working. Besides - if you don’t like the sound of your own voice just a little bit, why on earth are you podcasting?