So You Want to Make a Podcast? Part 1: Recording

So You Want to Make a Podcast?

Part 1: Recording

Podcasting is a popular and increasingly useful tool we can use to put our creative content in front of an audience. The great news is it is neither complicated or costly to do. Perhaps that is why more and more people are turning to it. So if you are thinking of doing it but don't know where to start this series of blogs should help. Each will focus on one of the three key phases, those being the actual recording or capture of the audio; the editing, adjusting and processing of that recording into a podcast; and the final section, sharing it.

Podcasting is not a particularly new idea. In many respects it is like many episodic, semi confessional publishing forms be they diaries or blogs or series. Their enduring appeal is undoubtedly in part the centrality of the human voice to podcasts and perhaps that is what makes them so approachable as both a producer and a consumer. In the past, as vlogs and other richer media options became viable, they have been occasionally derided and written off, but they have demonstrated great resilience and bounced along happily since the advent of MP3 format, RSS lists and the bandwidth to easily distribute them.

Recently they have seen something of a resurgence. Often the true-crime series like Serial are credited with the resurgence but it is also a reflection of audio as a versatile medium and of the appetite to consume our content where and when we want that underpins its popularity. As eyes and hands are busy with other things audio still has a place and be that at the gym, driving the car or doing the shopping, you can still listen in to your private obsession.

The versatility of the format means that it can add value to almost any circumstance. Topical timely and current events focused like those emerging from magazine and newspaper sites, niche subjects from manga to jogging and gardening, and dense in depth coverage tackling rich topics like the history of the world, you will find a podcast that already does it or a format that will accommodate your idea.

Sometimes they are incidental productions, emerging as a capture from another format and repurposed as a pod, like the recording of a debate distributed in audio format to those that couldn’t attend. Sometimes they are deliberately crafted and produced specifically and solely for the podcast audience. The diversity is deep and rich as the appetite for podcasts.

And, just as it is easy for us to consume them, it is also increasingly easy to produce them so you too can quite easily produce and release your own podcast.

The key stages are the capture of the audio - the recording; the editing and post-production to create a presentable product; and finally, the distribution. Today we will deal with the recording aspect.

The circumstances of what you are recording and where you are recording it will influence your choices here. But be reassured you can actually do a great deal of this with non-specialist kit. In fact, you can produce a perfectly acceptable podcast with nothing more than a smartphone.

These days we are fortunate that it is much more straightforward to capture sound in a digital format. Most of us carry smartphones that have enviable capabilities for recording our conversations as well as live ambient sound in enough clarity to make the resulting recording perfectly usable. They have the advantage of being tremendously portable and so work well when on the move, or in snatched opportunities. Think of all those reporters shoving smartphones in the face of a politician as they doorstep them emerging from a meeting. If you have ever lectured to a group of students in the last few years you are likely to have found your desk festooned with smartphones capturing your every word. So the smartphone is a perfectly good recording device

Of course, you can enhance the capability of phones in a number of ways. Some have native audio recording apps ready installed but, if not, there are any number ready for download and many of these are free. Enhancing the quality by using accessories specifically for the purpose of better audio recording might also be useful. So some phones can have microphones added with greater capacity and clarity and often with foam or similar covers to cut down on the ambient wind noise that can make outdoor recording less audible.

Stepping on from that you can find specialist recording devices which are designed to provide more sophisticated and better quality recordings with the same sort of portability. These are really useful for the type of roving recording and come with all sorts of capability from recording and storing huge amounts of audio, to different sound formats and varied quality configuration - and even more flexible expansion options like the addition of “boom microphones” for reaching away from yourself or rifle microphones for highly targeted pick up when there are other noises around. But in truth, for the vast majority of podcasts this type of kit is completely unnecessary.

If you are wanting to record a conversation with a group of people who you can't actually physically get together many of the conferencing tools we have become used to using in recent weeks like Skype, Zoom or Microsoft Teams either have the inbuilt capacity to record the conversations taking place or there are third party applications that will plug in and do that for you. For example, I use a software add-on called MP3 Skype Recorder to capture Skype calls - clue being in the name.

One thing that can enhance the quality of this type of “conference” recording can be by the participants using headphones and microphones. If everyone is using just the speakers and microphones on their laptops you can get sound “bleed” where each mic picks up everyone else's speaker. Using headphones and microphones can make it much crisper.

For the more ambitious who want to start using microphones and more of a studio type arrangement where you perhaps all gather round a laptop or similar to record a conversation you need to think about a couple of things.

Firstly think about the acoustics of the room you are recording in. If it's too big and echoey then the effect can be like a recording in a public lavatory - you get the idea! Not for nothing this effect is sometimes called “wet”. Fortunately, smaller cluttered and untidy rooms, like my office, can create a better sound.

That takes us on to microphones. A huge subject in their own right but the fact of the matter is that external mics are likely to be much better than the built in one on your computer. So, if you are aiming a bit higher then you might want to consider using one and they are surprisingly affordable.

But you need to consider a few things if you are using one. How does it connect to your computer if your computer is the recording device? Will it be a jack plug or pin plug or maybe via a USB? Personally I like using one that connects to my laptop via a USB plug but whatever you choose it must be compatible with what connections are available to your computer. Some mics even need their own power supply called “phantom” power - yeh spooky eh! But, don't be worried, these are quite specialised bits of kit.

Microphones also come with quite distinctive characteristics as well.

A big distinction in microphones is the difference between what are called condenser microphones and dynamic microphones. Dont worry too much about what is technically different about them. What you probably need to know is condenser microphones are more sensitive, pick up more detail and more delicate sounds so tend to be preferred in a sit down, calm, and more formal set up and they tend to be found on mike stands (we cover this below).

Dynamic mics, on the other hand, are more robust and great on stage (see reference to Roger Daltrey below!) but will pick up less detail. We have all been at events where someone holds a hand held mic near their stomach and people shout out “Hold the mic closer to your mouth we can't hear you!” You get the picture. As a sad retired singer I have a preference for a Shure SM56 - you know the type you see Roger Daltrey swinging around his head.

It is also worth knowing that some microphones are designed to be quite specific in the direction that they will record sound from - often called unidirectional. This means that if you are sat in front of it you get recorded, if you are behind it you won’t be heard. Others are what are known as omni directional and will record in most any direction.

For more information on microphones, read Dougal Perman’s blog on ‘How to Choose the Right Mic’.

Which brings me now to how you place and hold microphones. As we already know it can be very handy to have a mic you can carry around with you and shove in someone's face, and sometimes it is absolutely what you need.

But, for a more calm, studio type experience you might use a mic stand so as to reduce the amount of accidental and incidental sound that can emerge from holding a mic. Mic stands come in many forms from simple desk mounted devices (I use one, very handy), single upright stands as beloved by many a lead singer or backing vocalist, or a boom mike which looks like a crane and allows you to cantilever the mic into more awkward places - like over a piano! It's up to you, you might be able to borrow one if you need one, but in truth, the basic sort are not particularly expensive.

I am sure you have all seen mics in use on YouTube with the likes of Jimmy Dore or Joe Rogan with a special sprung spidery type fitting holding the mic, making it look like it emerges from the Atomium in Brussels. Well these are the next step for the more professional recorder because these are called “spider mountsand are designed to reduce vibrations and rumbles that the mic would otherwise pick up as you tap the desk inadvertently, or someone stomps around in the room next door. As it happens, I often use one but that is because I have one, but do I need it? Would you be able to tell the difference if I didn't have one? Probably not.

You might also notice that sometimes microphones have round screens in front of them that look like they are covered in a mesh. These are usually called “pop” screens and are intended to stop your voice making “popping” noises as you get close to the mic. Again, they are not necessary for most, just sit back from the mic a bit to avoid the problem should it occur.

For the more professional producers - who will not be reading this! - you can also incorporate mixing desks between the microphones and the laptop. This gives you very fine control on relative volume and tone captured from each sound source. But it is not necessary nor is it necessary for you to hire a studio to produce a simple but perfectly acceptable recording for use in a podcast.

For what it's worth I use an old unidirectional Samson USB microphone, on a spider mount with my desk stand with a pop screen when I am recording the intro and outro parts for the XpoNorth podcast. Why? Well I have the kit, it makes the recording less prone to unnecessary noise so I can usually get a recording more quickly with fewer errors. But, do I actually need it? No. It is perfectly possible to produce wholly listenable podcasts without any of the fancy dancy kit.

So, now you can go capture your recording.

Some might record expertly in one take on their smartphone, save it in the right format and immediately upload it to the web to share. Well done you if that is you. But for the mere mortals like us there's probably a bit to do.

The sounds that you record will be saved into a digital file in some form be it on your phone, on your computer or on another device. Now they will take many forms, .mp3, .wav and many others formats - it doesn't really matter at this stage.

What you are now going to need to do is bring it together maybe with some other recordings, maybe to cut some mistakes out of it, maybe add some introductions or some credits, or maybe even add a bit of intro music and create your podcast as a complete “show”. That process is straightforward and there are plenty of tools, many free that, with just a bit of practice, become very easy to use.

We will deal with that part of the process in the next blog on the subject of “So you want to make a podcast.”

So, as a reminder, some key questions to ask yourself for this stage:

Am I recording just myself?

If so do I need anything other than my smartphone?

If I am recording a group can we do it via a collaboration tool that we could record?

Skype, Zoom and many others are great tools for capturing a group chat. Remember headphones can really help.

If I am recording several people in a meeting can I select a good room?

Better background acoustics can really help.

Do I need microphones?

Sometimes they can make your job easier, especially when you are interviewing people face to face, but remember not all microphones have the same characteristics.

- Tim Wright, XpoNorth Specialist


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