As a podcaster, there are few feelings worse than listening back to a recording, only to find that the audio has some hideous, previously-unnoticed problem - whether it’s a noisy air conditioning unit in the background, an unpleasantly harsh echo, or just electronic interference from nearby devices.
This week, I was approached by a fellow podcaster at Haymarket about an issue with the audio quality of some of their recordings, looking for advice on how to mitigate the issue without having to go through the rigmarole of re-recording them all over again.
I can definitely sympathise with this, as I’ve found myself in the same situation multiple times over the course of my podcasting life. At Haymarket, we’re lucky to have access to a properly-equipped studio, but in previous roles, I’ve had to make do with a variety of makeshift recording spaces, many of which bring with them an assortment of audio complications, with room echo being a particular thorn in my side.
Sadly, as allpodcast producers will know, addressing this after the fact can be extremely challenging. While things like false starts, filler words and coughing fits can be easily snipped out during post-production, cutting out something like echo isn’t as straightforward. It’s like trying to remove the eggs from a cake after you’ve already baked it; as soon as you hit record, the echo’s part of the mix.
“Most of the time, I've got audio that cannot be redone,” says Emma Corsham, a freelance producer who edits PodPod, among other shows. “For that I rely on the audio edit software to help us out the hole. But it's like adding salt to a meal - do it little by little and keep comparing back to the original. It's very easy to overdo it and make the whole clip sound worse than it did.”
You can do a lot with EQs, plug-ins and filters, but in most cases, you’ll end up stripping out elements of the speaker’s voice along with the unwanted noise; take it too far, and you’ll be left with a voice that sounds crushed and robotic.
At this point, you have two options: simply accept the less-than-ideal quality of the audio you’ve already got, or admit defeat and re-record the affected segments.
If you’re recording one voice, doing a few retakes is less of an issue - It’s not ideal, and having to restart the recording process all over again is a definite pain in behind - but you’re likely working off a script in the first place, which makes things somewhat easier. With multi-person conversations, however, this can become a real problem.
Even if the issue is only one track of your recording, re-doing individual questions or comments within a larger interview means that the person's audio quality and sound will vary throughout the recording, which can be distinctly jarring for listeners. Re-recording parts of a wider conversation after the fact also risks losing the energy and flow of the original, as people try and remember what they said previously, and it usually sounds stilted, awkward and forced.
This isn’t always the case, in fairness; News Agents creator Dino Sofos told us about one occasion where, after recording 20 minutes of analysis and discussion, the team agreed that it “didn’t feel right”. They simply junked it and started again, with an end result that ended up being much better than the previous attempt.
It’s worth remembering too, that podcasts don’t always have to be recorded in studio-quality conditions. If you’re recording live from an event, for example, a bit of background buzz and chatter can enhance the feel, and give the listener more of a sense of presence. Audiences are also incredibly forgiving of imperfect audio quality - particularly in a post-pandemic world where video-conferencing is now an accepted norm. If one of your hosts is recording from their hotel room while on location, for example, flagging that up to listeners can help the episode seem more vital and timely. If the conversation or content is interesting enough, the only thing that really matters is that your speakers can be clearly heard.
“When working for a broadcaster,” Corsham says, “there was a phrase we were taught - 'good enough for news' - the idea that there's an acceptable lower quality of audio when the content is understandably capturing something newsworthy or difficult to restage.”
Ultimately, there's no one right answer to the question of when to give up and re-record; it’ll come down to a number of factors, including how much time you have on hand, how bad the quality of the affected audio is, and how much can be done to minimise the impact through editing wizardry. Sometimes, however, there’s no shame in throwing your hands up, and accepting that you’ll just have to put a particular recording in the bin - and chalk it up as a learning experience for future sessions.