Amid all the more serious consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were also silly ones. Like how media companies had to, in large part, shut down shop. The music industry slowed down. Movies and television shows were halted mid-production, and those that managed to keep going faced all kinds of logistical and safety issues.
Podcasts–a generally low-budget medium–survived the pandemic better than almost any other industry, but even they weren’t left untouched. It’s how the multi-millionaire, most recognizable podcast host in the country–Ira Glass–ended up doing the March 22nd episode of ‘This American Life’ from inside of a small closet. With only a Macbook, a condenser microphone, and a Zoom H6 at his disposal, he recorded a show that would reach five million people using the kind of setup you’d be more likely to find in a college dorm room. TMZ enshrined the event with the headline: “Welcome to This American Closet.”
— Ira Glass (@iraglass) March 22, 2020
The episode didn’t sound bad, though, and neither did the episodes that came after it. How did he mimic studio quality with an amateur setup?
How to Make Your Narration Sound Better
Let’s pick apart everything we see in that one picture…
There are two categories of microphone, condenser and dynamic. Without getting too in the weeds: condenser mics are more sensitive and responsive, while dynamic mics are better at handling more extreme conditions. You’re more likely to find dynamics in musical performances, when a singer is belting out high notes and a drummer is smacking their cymbals. You’ll find condensers in NPR studios, or ASMR recordings, where every little inflection of the mouth helps you fall asleep a little better.
Dynamic mics are great for grabbing and running around a stage with. Condenser mics, with all their sensitivity, can’t even handle the grabbing part. By holding a podcast microphone, you’re going to pick up the subtle movements of your hands–a finger moving, the base of the mic shifting in your palm. Just don’t hold it. Get a stand.
You won’t fully appreciate shock absorbers until you don’t have one, and the rumble of your refrigerator in the next room, or a truck driving outside, messes up your recording. An absorber mitigates all those subtle vibrations all around you–those you wouldn’t otherwise notice until it’s too late.
Microphones don’t act exactly like human ears do–they react to different sounds differently. If you’ve ever tried recording out on a windy day, you’ll know how impossible it is without a windscreen–that fuzzy cover you’d recognize on the boom mic at an outdoor T.V. or movie set. A microcosm of this wind phenomenon are “p” and “b” sounds–those that require an extra bit of wind to dictate. They can sound pretty annoying on your final recording without a pop filter–a screen that softens the sounds before they’re picked up by the mic.
Recording at a slight angle:
If you’ve ever watched a vlog, you might’ve seen that the host’s microphone is slightly off-center. The point is to not obscure their face, but some people do this even when they’re not on camera. It might help minimize strong sounds, or the sound of your breathing through your nose.
Finally, there’s recording in a closet. It’s not just a quirky thing: there’s science to why closets tend to be the best place in the house for recording podcast sound.
For one thing, they’re small. You’re going to get less echo in a small place than a big one. By that logic alone, though, bathrooms would also be good for recording. They’re small, yes, but they tend to make audio sound hollow. That’s because bathrooms have a lot of hard surfaces–metal, glass, tiling, etc–which bounce sound waves right off.
Closets, by contrast, have soft clothing that cushions sound waves, rather than deflecting and amplifying them. As an analogy, imagine a tennis ball. If you throw a tennis ball at one wall in your bathroom it’ll probably bounce 20 times off of the other walls, the ceiling and everything else in there. Throw a tennis ball in your closet and it’ll lose all its momentum almost immediately once it hits a pile of shirts. That’s what we want: less echo, less amplification and interference between sounds.
If your closet isn’t big enough to record in, simply find a room with more closet-like, less bathroom-like features: a bedroom with mattresses and pillows, a living room with carpet and curtains.
How to Make Your Interviews Sound Better
Now you’ve got your own podcast audio all set up, but, depending on the kind of show you’re producing, there’s also the matter of everyone else’s audio. Whether you’re interviewing somebody, or recording a group conversation, everybody needs to sound good, not just you.
That can be frustrating because you’ll only have so much control over other people. You can’t choose their mic for them, or anything else about their setup. All you can do is make little suggestions:
- Ask your recording partner(s) to sit in the quietest room they have available, with the best internet connection.
- Make sure all phones are silenced. Even trickier: the notifications that may pop up on their computers.
- Remind them not to move around too much, or fiddle with things on their desk which might be caught by the microphone.
There’s also the matter of conferencing software. Some programs, like Skype, tend to yield low-quality recordings, where others, like Google Meet, don’t let you record at all. So it’s worth testing out different options before you commit to one. Here are our favorites…
Best Overall: Zencastr
Zencastr isn’t super well-known. But it’s the best software for recording podcasts, largely for one reason: it records each speaker individually. Other conferencing software records a single audio file,with everyone on top of one another. With Zencastr, one person’s background noise doesn’t get picked up in another’s recording, and cross-talk is a non-issue. Zencastr has some other neat features, too, like recording in .mp3 or .wav, and automatic cloud backups to ensure your files don’t get accidentally lost or ruined.
Best for Big Groups: Zoom
Zencastr supports more than three speakers, but the feature is still in beta. Until the technical glitches are smoothed over, your best bet is Zoom. Zoom can reliably record as many people as you can imagine recording at one time.
Best for Video Recording: Zencastr or Zoom (TIE)
Both Zencastr and Zoom support high-quality video and audio recording. You can’t go wrong here.
Best for Dealing with Low-Tech People: Skype
Skype tends to be of far lesser quality than Zencastr and Zoom and, what’s more, you’ll need third-party software–Amolto Call Recorder–to actually record anything. That said, it’s extremely cheap to make phone calls, including international ones, through Skype. So if you’re recording your nana in Italy, who doesn’t know how to use a computer (let alone Zencastr), you can do it cheaply and easily through Skype.
Best for Dealing with Background Noise: Krisp
What if I told you you didn’t need a professional setup to get clear recordings? Krisp’s HD voice feature replaces the hours you’d spend editing out background noises by removing these automatically and enhancing your sound. Krisp will also prevent room and acoustic echoes from being captured by your microphone so you’ll end up with perfectly clear audio right after recording it. This is a great way to cut down on production costs, resources, and time.
The noise-canceling tool works with other software you might already be using like Audacity and Adobe Audition. It also connects to any third-party app that accepts Krisp for the audio input and you can use it for your real-time meetings on Zoom, Google Meet, and more.
The Bottom Line
As COVID has continued to keep radio and podcast hosts at home, it’s a reminder that recording is neither overly difficult nor overly expensive. Anyone can make their podcast audio sound crisp, it just requires a little guile. Maybe a little flexibility, to squeeze into a closet.
And, in the end, it’s important to remember one more thing: that the quality of your podcast audio is far less important than the quality of the content. People would much rather listen to a great podcast that sounds okay than an okay podcast that sounds great. In fact, there are lo-fi podcasts laying around from the mid-2000s that still hold up today. “12 Byzantine Rulers”–which inspired some of the best podcasts in the world, like Hardcore History, and still has fans listening today–is just one professor, Lars Brownworth, lecturing into his microphone for 15 to 20 minutes. He messes up his speech sometimes, and there’s no music. And it’s great anyway.
So even if you’re not This American Life, remember you don’t have to be. Just make your podcast sound as good as it can, then forget about it. Focus on why you’re doing a podcast in the first place. Why people should bother listening at all.