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If you want to keep new listeners, having a show that sounds great is so important.
Think about the first time you hit play on a podcast; if it sounds good, you’ll keep listening. If it sounds like crap (lots of noise, echo, and uneven levels) you’ll go find something else to listen to. You don’t want to lose listeners because of poor audio quality, but at the same time, it can take awhile to learn how to use audio plugins (like EQs and compressors) correctly.
Most audio editing apps (and even some video editing apps too) have stock plugins that can help you fix audio issues and enhance the quality of your recordings.
There are also third-party plugins that you can buy, but are they worth the money? Can you make a podcast or video sound great just by using the stock plugins?
Highlights, Takeaways & Quick Wins:
- Your goal should be to record audio that needs as little fixing as possible.
- The question to ask yourself is, “What can I do to not have to use any plugins at all?”
- It’s not that you have to eliminate background noise completely, but it should not be obvious or distracting for your listener.
- Every microphone has a sweet spot; get too close and you’ll sound too bassy, get too far away and you’ll sound thin. Do some tests and practice staying at the right distance from your mic.
- You might have a perfectly good mic that, for whatever reason, just doesn’t give you the sound that you want. Most of us don’t have the time or money to try out a bunch of different mics, so it’s easier and faster to tweak the sound with an EQ plugin.
- The limiter is the one plugin I use on every podcast project. It’s the best way to boost gain without risking clipping.
- If I had to make a case for third-party plugins, I would argue that audio engineers and professional podcast editors should invest in third-party plugins that solve specific problems.
What are Audio Plugins?
- 2:42 Audio plugins are little software tools that you can use inside of audio editing programs like Garageband, Logic Pro X, or Adobe Audition. They are used to affect or enhance audio in various ways, like changing the way a voice sounds (EQ), removing background noise (noise removal), or controlling dynamic range (compressor).
- 3:27 Almost every audio editing program comes with good stock plugins, but you can also buy plugins from third-party companies like Waves, Universal Audio, Izotope, and many more.
- 4:10 I own (and use) third party audio plugins from both Izotope and Waves, but are they worth the money?
- 4:29 It depends on what your needs are. You can buy some pretty cool (and useful) plugins; but I think for podcasters, the goal should be recording raw audio that doesn’t need to be fixed or enhanced. Let me say that again:
Your goal should be to record audio that needs as little fixing as possible.
- 4:58 Audio plugins are great tools for fixing audio, but ultimately you should be trying to record audio that would be good enough to ship with little or no post-production.
- 5:11 It all comes down to care. If you put some forethought into your recording process, you can get to the point where you don’t have use most audio plugins for your podcast.
The question to ask yourself is, “What can I do to not have to use any plugins at all?”
1. Invest in Good Gear
- 5:31 I shared my list of gear recommendations in episodes 32, Podcasting on a Budget. It’s ok to start with a cheaper USB microphone (although I wouldn’t recommend less than the Blue Yeti), but if you want to sound great, start putting aside a little money every week to invest in better gear.
2. Set Proper Input Gain
- 6:14 Setting proper input gain levels is another very important piece of recording great raw audio. You want to adjust the recording level of your mic so that it’s picking up loud enough but not too loud. If you’re recording with Logic Pro X or Audacity (or any other program that has level meters with numbers), you’ll want to make sure the levels don’t go much louder then -12db or -6db.
3. Learn Mic Technique
- 6:32 The key to good mic technique is to maintain a consistent distance from your mic (usually 2-4 inches) and speak at a consistent volume. If you are going to raise your voice, back away from the mic a little. If you are going to whisper, get a little closer to the mic. The distance from the mic and volume of your voice has a big effect on how your recording will sound.
4. Eliminate Background Noise
- 6:47 Try to eliminate as much background noise as you can. This is a very common problem for a lot of podcasters and is the mark of an amateur production.
It’s not that you have to eliminate background noise completely, but it should not be obvious or distracting for your listener.
- 6:58 Background noise is something you can fix with some third party plugins (like Izotope’s RX Dialogue De-noiser) and some stock plugins, but it’s much better to eliminate the noise before you hit record. More on that in a second.
Common Mistakes That You Can Fix with Audio Plugins
- 8:01 I read an interview with an audio engineer who works for NPR yesterday. In this article, the engineer explains how NPR gets their signature sound (there’s a ton of great advice in that article, go check it out).
- 8:26 One of the things in the article that really caught my attention was this piece of advice: crank up the gain on your microphone and just listen. Don’t talk, just pay attention to what you hear in the room, identify anything creating noise and try to eliminate that noise. The most common sources of noise turned out to be fans, AC, and computers.
- 9:00 It’s tempting to leave the fan and AC running while you record. After all, it’s hot in the summer in Texas (and most places, really). But a few minutes of discomfort is worth providing a good listening experience to your audience.
1. Room Echo
- 9:44 Room echo is a problem that doesn’t necessarily ruin audio quality, but it degrades the listening experience a little bit, and all of these things together add up.
- 10:07 The good news is that you can fix room echo fairly easily; buy some sound absorption foam panels from Amazon and put it on the walls in front of and around the place you record.
- 10:27 Most room echo is caused by the sound waves of your voice bouncing off the wall in front of you and then behind you and then coming back into microphone. Buy some of that foam and put it up in front of you and you’ll eliminate a lot of that echo.
2. Poor Dynamics
- 10:56 Uneven volume levels are something you would fix with a compressor plugin, but what causes this? Poor mic technique (or automatic level control gone wrong). If you back away from the mic, talk too quietly or too loudly for certain sections, then you’ll have to use a compressor to even out the volume differences. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but when you compress a track and add makeup gain to average out the volume, you’ll also bring up the noise floor.
Every microphone has a sweet spot; get too close and you’ll sound too bassy, get too far away and you’ll sound thin. It’s important to do some tests and practice staying at the right distance from your mic.
3. Too Much Bass or Treble
- 13:24 EQ or equalizer plugins allow you to boost or cut the frequencies that make up your voice. You’ve probably played with an equalizer before; most (if not all) car stereos have a simplified version of EQ (you can boost or cut the bass, mids, or highs). EQ plugins in your audio software let you do something similar to your recordings, just with more fine control.
- 13:58 So let’s say you record a podcast, and when you listen back, it sounds too bassy. You can use an EQ plugin to reduce some of the bass frequency. Or if your track sounds dull, you can boost the highs to give a little more brightness and shine to the track.
- 14:12 EQ is a little trickier because every mic records frequencies a little differently, and every voice is different.
You might have a perfectly good mic that, for whatever reason, just doesn’t give you the sound that you want. Most of us don’t have the time or money to try out a bunch of different mics, so it’s easier and faster to tweak the sound with an EQ plugin.
- 14:45 If you mix and edit your own podcasts, it’s worth learning how to use EQ plugins. Something I do a lot (the audio engineer from NPR does this as well) is use a high-pass filter to remove the super-low bass frequencies. If you’re interested in learning more about EQ, I made a screencast awhile back explaining how I EQ voices for podcasts.
- 15:22 The limiter is one plugin I think is required for every single project. It simply keeps your audio from hitting the digital ceiling which will cause clipping and distortion. It’s a great way to add some gain and get your audio loud enough without risking causing your audio to clip. I put a limiter as the final plugin on the master track, and then boost the gain by 2-4db.
The limiter is one plugin I’ll use on every podcast project. It’s the best way to boost gain without risking clipping.
A Case for Third Party Plugins
- 16:31 If you interview new guests every week, there are a few plugins that I recommend buying because there are a lot of people who are willing to come on a podcast, but they don’t know how to record clean audio so you’ll end up getting recordings that have issues like background noise or clipping. In that situation, it’s valuable to have some third party plugins like the RX audio repair plugins from Izotope (the Dialogue De-noiser and De-clip plugins are really great).
If I had to make a case for third-party plugins, I would argue that audio engineers and professional podcast editors should invest in third-party plugins that solve specific problems.
- 17:20 I’ve also got some plugins from Waves (the Gold Bundle), and they’re cool plugins, but they’re overkill for podcasters since professional audio editing apps like Logic and Audition come with stock plugins that do the same things.
If You Want to Run a Lot of Plugins, You’ll Need a Modern Computer
- 17:40 Keep in mind that these plugins take a lot of processing power, so if your computer is more than a couple years old, it might struggle to run certain plugins in real time. In that case, you’ll need to add the plugin to the track and then bounce the track, which will give you a brand new file with the processing done so you won’t need to leave the plugin running while you do your editing. That will reduce the load on your computer’s processor.
Are Stock Plugins Enough? Yes, If You’re Careful About How and Where You Record
- 18:08 To close, I think that the stock plugins that come with audio editing programs are more than enough to produce a podcast that sounds great, if you take care to make your recordings as good as they can be. Invest in a decent mic, set proper input gain levels, use a pop filter and good mic technique, and eliminate room echo and background noise before you hit record. If you do the work before you hit record, you’ll have less work to do in post-production.
- 21:39 Alex asked: I want to be able to do mobile podcasting since I travel a lot. What do you recommend for gear/setup to achieve 90% sound quality while traveling?
- 21:56 This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately because I want to do more traveling in the next decade. I actually sold my SM7B microphone this past week, because as much as I like that microphone, it’s not portable. It’s not portable because:
- It requires an audio interface
- It also requires a mic preamp (it’s very gain hungry)
- 22:26 My main mic now is a Shure KSM32, and it’s not that much more portable. It still requires an interface, but it’s lighter and doesn’t need a mic preamp.
- 22:55 I think when I do start traveling, I’m going to switch to a USB microphone. I’ve got my eye on the Rode NT, but I may also just get a really nice shotgun mic like the Rode NTG3, and use my Zoom H4N as a portable interface, since that’s a setup that works really well for shooting video too.
- 23:26 If you have an iPad or iPhone, you can buy a USB-to-Lighting connector and connect a USB mic or interface to your iOS device. You could record and edit a show with Garageband or Ferrite (iPad only), and upload it to your podcast host with Transmit for iOS. I’ve played around with recording and editing audio on my iPad Pro, and still find it much more tedious than doing it on my Mac, but I’m hoping that it’ll get better.
- 23:53 The biggest thing (as Cory Miller said in the chat) is the focus on getting a good audio recording. Make sure that you’re in a quiet space without a lot of echo or background noise, use a pop filter, use good mic technique, and set your input gain levels correctly.